Sparks Fly over LTE-U

I went to the Tech Policy Institute’s Aspen Forum this week, one of Internet policy’s premier events. If you’re interested in policy and want to get away from the August weather in DC, you can do a lot worse than spending a few days in the Rockies. It’s a lovely drive from Denver, especially Independence Pass where you cross the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet elevation.

The conference covers a wide range of topics, from intellectual property to privacy to Internet regulation and spectrum rights. The part I enjoyed the most was the breakout session on unlicensed spectrum, featuring a distinguished group of speakers:

  • David Don, Vice President for Regulatory Policy, Comcast Corporation
  • David Goldman, Chief Counsel, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce
  • Kathleen Ham, Vice President, Federal Regulatory Affairs, T-Mobile USA
  • Staci Pies, Senior Public Policy and Government Relations Counsel, Google
  • Peter Pitsch, Associate General Counsel and Executive Director, Communications Policy, Intel Corporation
  • Gregory Rosston, Deputy Director, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and Co-Director, Public Policy Program, Stanford University
  • Scott Wallsten (moderator), Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow, Technology Policy Institute 

It turns out the session was 95% about the potential conflict between Wi-Fi and LTE-U, something we’ve covered quite extensively here. The forum operates under Chatham House Rules, so I can tell you what was said but not who said it. The rhetoric on this issue has been ratcheted up so high that the session got off to a very slow start as we heard an awful lot of charges and rebuttals about the risk that some folks feel LTE-U poses to legacy Wi-Fi systems.

It was much like a reprise of the most over-heated exchanges about net neutrality, with charges of gatekeeping, looming dysfunction to a billion Wi-Fi devices in the US alone, and allegations that LTE-U is an expression of a desire to render unlicensed spectrum inoperable so that firms that hold licensed spectrum can more thoroughly take over the world. The counter-claims say that LTE-U is mainly (if not “only”) interesting in enterprise settings where Wi-Fi doesn’t do too well.

Having worked on enterprise Wi-Fi systems in the past, I can attest that it’s a huge challenge to cover a large corporate or university campus with Wi-Fi in such a way that every user gets good quality of experience. Wi-Fi is great for small networks, but it doesn’t scale up to big ones at all well.

My number one takeaway is that the people who fear LTE-U aren’t very well-informed about how it works, and this is at least partially the fault of the vagueness of the LTE-U Forum’s specifications. There’s also some confusion about the roles of 3GPP with Licensed Assisted Access and the LTE-U Forum on LTE-U; these are subtly different things; LTE-U is a US-only standard, while LAA is international. LAA will also come along several months later than LTE-U since international is a harder problem.

As the prison warden said in Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The LTE-U folks want to address some technical issues that Wi-Fi really can’t handle, and the Wi-Fi folks are caught up in state of abject terror because they feel their world is coming to an end. Just like net neutrality, where some engineers have been trying to improve the Internet for 20 years with support for real-time apps, while others feel it’s reached a state of Amish perfection and doesn’t need any stinking upgrades except more and more speed.

My assessment of the problem is that the fearful ones don’t appreciate the fact that LTE-U can’t destroy Wi-Fi without destroying itself, and there’s really no logic to destroying Wi-Fi in order to force people onto licensed spectrum. Net neutrality is based on hypothetical fears about impairments to free speech and the like, but nuking every Wi-Fi network in the US, or even a few of them, would likely spark riots the likes of which we’ve never seen. So no, that’s nobody’s goal and it’s downright evil to suggest it is.

That being said, the fears aren’t going to be tamped down until the LTE-U forum opens its kimono and lets the Wi-Fi folks (the Wi-Fi Alliance and IEEE 802.11) in on the precise details of their plans. That won’t end the complaining, however. A key problem here is Wi-Fi’s lack of efficiency at high speeds and long distances, and the refusal of 802.11 and the Wi-Fi Alliance to address this shortcoming. LTE-U is a solution to a problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed so far.

And yes, there are various measures that can be taken to ensure that Wi-Fi and LTE-U get along, but in the ideal state their co-existence will be no better than the co-existence of Wi-Fi with Bluetooth. It’s not perfect, but we can live with it.

At the end of the session, key players on both sides of the divide were talking to each other in a positive and constructive way, so we may just find some progress in the offing. Stay tuned.