The hunt for faster and more stable networks never ends. However, the transition to new technologies is often quite rocky and full of controversy. For instance, many thought that moving to 4G was not essential yet I cannot imagine any frequent user of mobile data nowadays going back to 3G speeds.
Now, the US is experiencing yet another transition that has been the subject of controversy since 2015. Back then, Verizon and T-Mobile announced their intention for the LTE-U spectrum. That move prompted criticism and opposition from entities such as the Wi-Fi Alliance as it was believed that allowing carriers to tap into the spectrum would interfere with normal Wi-Fi operations.
In simple terms, LTE-U refers to LTE technology that takes advantage of unlicensed 5GHz frequencies which are utilized by Wi-Fi. This way, LTE-U can offer better speeds in a more reliable way without actually adding any new infrastructure to its network, such as 5G.
Today, the FCC has approved of the first devices that can tap into the LTE-U spectrum, thus allowing companies like T-Mobile to finally roll out their plans. Verizon is also set to follow sometime during the year though no exact details have been released yet.
According to T-Mobile, LTE-U will take advantage of the first 20MHz of the unlicensed 5GHz spectrum which is also underutilized. Whenever there is more demand from Wi-Fi services, the LTE-U devices will back off. In theory, this will allow Wi-Fi services to continue uninterrupted while allowing LTE to perform better during other times.
Whether this method will work well in practice, however, remains to be seen. The technology must be able to intelligently pick and choose when and how it will tap into the frequencies which could be troublesome in real-life situations.
Another reason why this move has been controversial from the very start is because it is a simple way for carriers to reduce their costs while potentially burdening their customers further. The current state of affairs in networking is tremulous at best and LTE-U technology may add fuel to the fire.
Most devices of today will not be able to support the feature. Mobile phones with Snapdragon 820, such as the Galaxy S7, do offer support for LTE-U. T-Mobile will start deploying its LTE-U plans this spring so it won’t be long before we see the technology in action.