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Are carriers trying to steal Wi-Fi's spectrum? Not exactly

Stephen Lawson | Feb. 9, 2015
If unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum is like a cool, independently run cafe, then mobile operators using those frequencies for LTE may sound like a corporate chain buying out your favorite spot.

Will all that work go to waste if carriers can make unlicensed spectrum part of their cellular systems?

Not everywhere, and certainly not soon.

For one thing, carriers are far from being the only network providers turning to Wi-Fi for mobile services. Many cable operators, including Comcast in the U.S. and Liberty Global in Europe have extensive Wi-Fi networks to keep their subscribers connected while they're away from home. Those two providers announced a roaming deal last year. Companies that bundle access to many different Wi-Fi hotspots, such as Boingo, are also taking advantage of Hotspot 2.0 technology.

Meanwhile, unlicensed LTE still needs to prove how well it will work with licensed networks and how much of a boost it can give subscribers, Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said. It will require new features in both network equipment and mobile devices. Qualcomm's involvement suggests the technology will get out into handsets, but Schoolar doesn't expect those devices to ship until next year. And some mobile operators, such as AT&T, have built out vast Wi-Fi networks that they probably won't swap out for LAA-capable small cells any time soon, no matter what the promised benefits.

However, in the coming years, LAA may be major step toward mobile using any kind of spectrum that's available, a trend that next-generation 5G networks coming in 2020 are expected to continue.


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