In the hunt for ways to improve coverage and increase cellular speeds, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile in the U.S., and SK Telecom of South Korea, are considering using LTE over 5GHz, which today is used by Wi-Fi networks.
The operators have all taken part in tests conducted by telecommunications equipment vendor Ericsson in Canada and Sweden, Ericsson said on Tuesday. The underlying technology is still under development and hasn't been standardized, but Ericsson is able to reach 450Mbps while at the same time playing nice with Wi-Fi devices in its labs.
Of the three operators, T-Mobile in the U.S. has been most vocal in its support for the technology. It increases peak and average data speeds to smartphones and other devices with reduced packet latencies, CTO Neville Ray said in a blog post last month.
Ericsson conducted the demonstrations in collaboration with smartphone chip maker Qualcomm Technologies, whose backing is vital since networks and smartphones both have to be upgraded for it to work.
LTE, like other mobile phone technologies, is typically used in frequency bands for which the network operator must obtain a license, while Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed frequency bands that are free for anyone to use as long as they stay within rules for operating in the band.
License Assisted Access (LAA), the underlying technology allowing LTE to operate in the 5GHz unlicensed band, offers a way to use these two types of spectrum together to boost data rates.
LAA is controversial, though, as many fear that mobile operators' use of unlicensed bands will degrade Wi-Fi performance. However, vendors such as Ericsson seem intent on making LTE and Wi-Fi work well together. All of the company's equipment will coexist peacefully with wireless hotspots, meaning that adding LTE won't have any more effect than adding another Wi-Fi access point; Eric Parsons, head of LTE mobile broadband at Ericsson, said last week.
Standardization organization 3GPP has also said that developing the standards enhancements needed for LTE to coexist with Wi-Fi is a high priority.
When the first LAA-compatible devices and accompanying commercial services will become available remains to be seen, but T-Mobile has said it will start testing this year and Ericsson plans to start shipping the first network equipment during the fourth quarter. The equipment will be best suited for indoor usage, and lets users connect with LTE or Wi-Fi, assuming their mobile operators have turned the function on.
LAA is expected to be one of the hottest infrastructure innovations at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona next month. Ericsson and Qualcomm plan to demonstrate the technology, and will likely be joined by a host of other companies.
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