Don’t be afraid of the dark

Why operators should keep an open mind on LTE-U.

When we were young, our parents would tell us, not to be afraid of the dark; usually because they wanted us to go to sleep. As we got older, we realized that sometimes there’s good reason to be, if not afraid, then at least wary of the dark and to stay alert. In fact, not just the dark, but also the unknown, which we frequently treat with suspicion – sometimes quite correctly.

Recently there’s been talk of allowing LTE technology to be deployed in unlicensed, “free”, spectrum by almost anybody with the technical capability. To say operators are wary of this unknown development would be something of an understatement.

After all, operators pay a lot of money for licensed spectrum. And even more money has gone into the development, agreement, and deployment of the internationally agreed LTE standard.

So a common reaction to the idea of allowing anybody to deploy that highly prized LTE technology in free spectrum is – “why on earth would the operator community allow or support that?”

Operators already face a massive challenge from the OTT community, who have turned out to be rather good at delivering innovative services that capture consumer attention and revenues without all that expensive and messy business of having to deploy a network. Letting that community roll-out little bits of LTE technology in busy traffic areas to capture even more revenue is seen by many as a bridge too far.

But arguably, the licensed radio moat protecting the operator’s castle has already been badly breached. Would this new bridge really allow the OTT hordes to overrun the stronghold with impunity.

I happen to think not. I believe that is scare-mongering by those afraid of the dark.

Here’s why.   Firstly – let’s not forget that the mobile operators will also be allowed to deploy LTE in the unlicensed spectrum (LTE-U). That enables them to supplement their overworked and under-pressure licensed spectrum allocation by a huge multiple, especially in hot-spot areas, using a technology that’s designed for dense deployments.

Secondly – the limitations of the unlicensed spectrum means that it can’t be used to create a wide area network like the licensed UHF bands.

And that in turn means that only the mobile operator will be able to offer wide-area coverage on the core national network with seamless transition to high capacity “free to use” coverage in operator hot-spots.

Rather than opening the door to new competition, LTE-U can highlight the benefits of the operator network and the shortcomings of other point solutions.

What’s even more important is that the dear old consumer (remember them) is the biggest winner with vastly improved wide area and hot-spot network performance.

Yes, there’s a few technical challenges to overcome, but they are certainly not insurmountable. And operators lighting up LTE in the unlicensed space seems to me to have far more benefits to them, and to their customers, than the alternative of staying in the dark.

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