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Wi-Fi Alliance blasted for 'bias' in test for carrier LTE-U on Wi-Fi

A wireless carrier group has accused the Wi-Fi Alliance of kowtowing to cable operators as it nears completion of a test for LTE-U on Wi-Fi.

Mobile carriers and supporters have accused the Wi-Fi Alliance of favoring cable operators as it nears completion of a compatibility test for the LTE-U technology carriers plan to operate on public spectrum used by millions of Wi-Fi devices.

Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm Technologies Inc. and the EVOLVE coalition of carriers and major telecom suppliers attacked the Alliance in separate statements released last week. The organizations accused the certification body of giving into cable companies that want priority when using the 5.8 GHz spectrum.

The accusations came a day after the Alliance released a preliminary version of an interoperability test that manufacturers would use to show their LTE-U (Long-Term Evolution used in unlicensed spectrum) products can share a Wi-Fi network with other devices. The Alliance expects to finalize the test next month.

"The latest version of the test plan released by the Wi-Fi Alliance lacks technical merit, is fundamentally biased against LTE-U and rejects virtually all the input that Qualcomm provided for the last year, even on points that were not controversial," Qualcomm said.

EVOLVE, whose members include AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm, was equally scathing in its criticism. "Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi Alliance has buckled under political pressure from the cable lobby and proposed a one-sided plan that is fundamentally unfair to new technologies."

In response, the Alliance said its proposal was the result of an effort that included some of its latest critics. "Almost everybody is unhappy with some aspect of the coexistence test plan because, by it's nature, it is a product of a collaborative process that requires parties to compromise to get where we are today," said Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The Alliance is in the middle of a war between carriers and cable operators that stand to win or lose billions of dollars, depending on how LTE-U will be allowed to operate on the Wi-Fi spectrum.

Clashing business goals, not technology

Cable companies are rolling out hundreds of thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots across the nation to distribute paid services to subscribers. Mobile carriers, on the other hand, make money when subscribers stay on their data networks. In 2014, Verizon formed the LTE-U Forum to work with other carriers on using the public Wi-Fi spectrum.

From a technical standpoint, LTE-U and Wi-Fi devices can coexist on the same network, said Sathya Atreyam, an analyst at IDC. What carriers and cable companies are fighting over are the rules for when data traffic will move over LTE-U or Wi-Fi.

"Technology-wise, anything can be solved," Atreyam said. "It is the business side of things, which is not impossible, but difficult."

The rancor between the parties has left the Alliance with the onerous task of brokering an agreement to complete the test. "They are, unfortunately, stuck in a big way between these two camps," Atreyam said.

Ensuring LTE-U doesn't degrade network quality is critical to schools, libraries, homeowners and businesses that depend on Wi-Fi for accessing the internet. Because of potential damage, government intervention is possible, if the Alliance fails to bring both sides together.

Government on the sidelines

For now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has jurisdiction over the public spectrum, has preferred to let the tech industry find a solution. Qualcomm, however, questioned whether a compromise was possible, given the latest test specifications have "the clear purpose of trying to keep the benefits of LTE-U away from consumers and off the unlicensed spectrum."

"We believe that the FCC should disregard this latest version of the [test] plan, particularly because the watchword for unlicensed spectrum is supposed to be permission-less innovation, not incumbent protection," the company said.

The Alliance, however, said it believes government intervention won't be necessary. "The Wi-Fi Alliance is certainly confident that the coexistence test plan being developed within our organization will provide an accurate determination of whether LTE-U equipment does, in fact, share fairly with Wi-Fi and preserve the experience for Wi-Fi users," Robinson said.

Other industry experts are not so sure the FCC can stay on the sidelines. In Japan and the European Union, government regulators decide how LTE-U operates within the Wi-Fi spectrum, and the same is likely needed in the United States, said Akshay Sharma, an analyst at Gartner. "The FCC will need to make a policy statement."

A telecom standards body, called the 3GPP, is developing a more Wi-Fi-friendly technology, called License-Assisted Access (LAA), which could make government intervention unnecessary. Unlike LTE-U, which can take over a channel already in use, LAA-enabled devices wait their turn to talk on the network.

While LAA could eventually mark a truce in the battle, LTE-U proponents want to get on Wi-Fi networks today, rather than wait for LAA, which is at least 12 to 18 months away from release, Atreyam said. "It's a question of time."

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