FCC Allows LTE-U Devices to Share Airwaves Used for Wi-Fi

The Federal Communications Commission will now allow new 4G LTE wireless devices (known as LTE-U, for unlicensed) to use a portion of unlicensed 5Ghz airwaves currently used for Wi-Fi. With this decision, wireless providers can now deliver mobile broadband service, sharing the airwaves with Wi-Fi, says new FCC chair Ajit Pai, who made the ruling as a way of ending the dispute between the two industries. In the wake of this decision, Verizon Communications and T-Mobile US announced they will launch LTE-U networks and devices in the spring.

The Wall Street Journal says that LTE-U “will provide customers with another option that offers the extra capacity of unlicensed spectrum, but also the added security and faster speeds of LTE, a wireless broadband technology.” Up until now, wireless carriers have been “entangled in a lengthy battle over technical standards with cable companies” and Google, which contended that LTE-U would interfere with Wi-Fi.


According to the FCC, the two industries hammered out “coexistence guidelines and a testing plan.” Verizon executive Will Johnson applauded the decision, saying LTE-U is “yet another great innovation using unlicensed spectrum.”

This debate “highlights a broader competition that is emerging between traditional wireless carriers and new competitors that plan to rely on Wi-Fi to support phone services,” says WSJ, which reports that the Wi-Fi Alliance will continue to keep an eye on LTE-U. Think tank New America expert Michael Calabrese notes that, “whether LTE-U proves to be helpful or harmful to consumers remains to be seen.”

Ars Technica reports that, “anyone can operate in unlicensed spectrum without an FCC license as long as they use certified radio equipment and comply with power limits and other technical requirements.” According to Pai, the FCC certified LTE-U devices are within compliance of FCC rules.

Not everyone is certain about how well the two industries will share the unlicensed spectrum, but T-Mobile reports that, “LTE-U devices and equipment intelligently tap into and share underutilized unlicensed spectrum without affecting other users on the same band, including those using conventional Wi-Fi.”

“LTE-U constantly seeks the least utilized channels to maximize efficiency and performance for everyone,” it added. “As demand on the Wi-Fi network increases, LTE-U backs off, and as Wi-Fi demand wanes, customers can tap into that unused capacity for LTE.”