At Mobile World Congress next week, Qualcomm will unveil its first 4G silicon designed to tap the 5 GHz unlicensed airwaves used by Wi-Fi. The technology is called LTE-Unlicensed, and it’s becoming a bit of a sore point with the Wi-Fi industry, which feels the mobile carriers are encroaching on its turf. But Qualcomm and other mobile network vendors look to making the event in Barcelona a big showcase for the technology.
Specifically [company]Qualcomm[/company] is announcing a new radio transceiver for mobile devices that can pick an LTE signal out of the 5 GHz band. It’s the only upgrade that current mobile devices sold in the U.S. need to access an LTE-U network (Europe and parts of Asia have further requirements). Qualcomm has also developed a new baseband chip for small cells – miniature base stations used indoors or in high-traffic areas – that can cobble together LTE transmissions in both the unlicensed and licensed bands, said Mazen Chmaytelli, senior director of business development at Qualcomm.
The reason carriers like [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]T-Mobile[/company] are interested in LTE-U — and its more sophisticated cousin LTE-License Assisted Access — is because it will let them add more capacity to their networks in without buying new airwaves. The Unlicensed airwaves are meant to be shared with all comers as long as everyone follows some simple rules. You have to transmit at low power, which means no LTE-U blasting from cell towers, just small indoor cells. And you have to play nice with the others in the band, so no drowning out nearby Wi-Fi radios.
The problem, according to Wi-Fi Alliance, is that LTE-U networks would be highly organized, centrally managed entities operating in a world of largely independent Wi-Fi access points. Carriers could take advantage of that situation to take more than their fair share of capacity from that shared band. If the Alliance is right, that could mean slower speeds or spottier connections for you when accessing public Wi-Fi, but if you’re on your carrier’s 4G network you could find your speeds improving.
If you’re going to trust someone to not behave like an ass in the unlicensed bands, though, Chmaytelli posits that someone is Qualcomm. “We’re not just a big player in 3G and 4G,” Chmaytelli said. “We are also a big player in Wi-Fi.”
Qualcomm owns Atheros, a Wi-Fi chip maker. Creating a technology that would purposely disable or undercut the performance of its other commercial products just isn’t in Qualcomm’s best interests, Chmaytelli said. Much of the development work Qualcomm has done so far on LTE-U has been on ensuring mutual co-existence with Wi-Fi, Chmaytelli added.
[company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] and Qualcomm are planning a trial for the second half of the year that would put Qualcomm’s new chipset into Alcatel-Lucent’s small cells. Plus we could see several carriers announce their own trials at MWC. The first LTE-U capable handset or modem, however, probably won’t make it into the market until 2016.