Unlicensed LTE MulteFire Overview

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Could you have LTE-U deployed anywhere just like Wi-Fi? We all love Wi-Fi, right? I am a huge fan of Wi-Fi, mainly because it’s mostly free and available almost anywhere. We all love the bandwidth when it’s clean and has a good connection. We can install it at home with little effort. Did I mention I love that most of the time it’s free! Don’t we love the fact it saves on our mobile device bill? We love free bandwidth and free data. It sure beats paying the carriers for the extra data used in our homes.

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What if we could get better bandwidth with LTE-U? What if LTE-U could be a standalone format? It appears that MulteFire will be the LTE version of Wi-Fi. It is a standalone LTE-U format that Qualcomm developed. Then Nokia backed and now Ericsson! They formed the MulteFire Alliance! It’s just like the Wireless Broadband Alliance, WBA, which is an alliance of Wi-Fi operators, OEMs, and vendors.

Let’s start off with some basics. What is LTE-U? It’s simply LTE in the unlicensed band where Wi-Fi resides. It is a completely different format than Wi-Fi because it is LTE. The main advantage the carriers like about LTE-U is that the devices can jump from LTE to LTE much easier than LTE to Wi-Fi formats. If you are running VoLTE, it makes a difference. However, before MulteFire LTE-U had to be anchored to a carriers LTE spectrum in aggregation. I believe MulteFire could change that if I read it right.

LTE-U is something that the carriers want. For the carriers there are different ways to extend their coverage by doing aggregation with unlicensed frequencies, this can be Wi-Fi or LTE-U, I wrote about the ways they do this here. Here is a quick aggregation refresher. LWA = licensed LTE with Wi-Fi, LAA which is LTE licensed with LTE-U unlicensed. In this case the carrier’s licensed spectrum would be the anchor and the other spectrum would be used accordingly.

What makes MulteFire different? MulteFire would allow an unlicensed provider to provide LTE-U in the unlicensed band as a standalone. This is just like the way the Wi-Fi carriers work now, at least that is how I see it. While Qualcomm built this to sell their chips, I see it as a revolution moving forward by putting LTE everywhere! Way to go Qualcomm! The cable companies could really build a cool network with MulteFire. I would look at it as evolution for the unlicensed spectrum.

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The guys building out carrier class Wi-Fi don’t like to hear that because they have subscription models. Suddenly the carriers are appreciating these guys a lot more today because offload is a big deal in this digital data centric world we live in where apps and browsing rule the smartphone world we all live in. The carriers can’t keep up with all the data and they are looking to offload where they can. I am sure that T-Mobile’s Binge-On offer doesn’t help the loading issue, although they seem to be handling it very well. LTE appears to be very efficient and may really help the smartphone makers improve data upload and download in the unlicensed spectrum.

The Wi-Fi providers are concerned about interference from LTE-U. That may or may not be the issue. The test results appear to biased one way or the other so who knows. What I have seen in the real world is that if you have 5 Wi-Fi hotspots all lined up you see problems anyway. Maybe the same issue happens with LTE-U hotspots lined up with Wi-Fi but we will have to wait and see. LTE-U is still not in my world to play with, although I can’t wait until it is.

Will this spark small cell growth? Yes! We can put something like this in buildings it may really help with the extension of LTE coverage for all carriers. Verizon really likes this path. They are excited about the LTE-U spectrum. It may solve a lot of problems for them to deploy in many buildings where they would have had to put regular small cells. Now they plan add LTE-U small cells as a supplement to their coverage. If you do Verizon small cell work then get ready!

I think if this is deployed properly it could be an alternative to shared indoor DAS systems if the carriers can share the LTE-U hotspots. It may be a way to have a multicarrier coverage in a venue or building. I don’t see this at stadiums or arenas, but maybe in an office building where DAS or small cells don’t fit the budget. This is the space where Wi-Fi plays very well.

Drawbacks do exist just like they do for Wi-Fi! Remember that in the unlicensed bands you are very limited in power which means very limited coverage. There is no license so you could install it in a wide open area only to come back and see 6 other hotspots, Wi-Fi and LTE-U, right beside you in a week.

Currently there are security risks with Wi-Fi, supposedly LTE has better security, but once it’s in the unlicensed bands that may all change. I have a wait and see attitude.

I see this being deployed as a small cell. It would be something that the large OEMs would deploy first. I know that Nokia and Ericsson are already working on a product for the carriers. This will be exciting for the deployment teams.

This is a great opportunity to offer the carriers a venue where we could give LTE coverage with the option of tying back into the carrier for coverage. I also hope that this can be tied into the 3.5GHz spectrum here in the USA. I can’t wait until the FCC frees up more spectrum in the 3.5GHz band for LTE build outs. It will really help the utilities and the venues offer an alternative to the carriers. This will great increase competition and make a difference in who can deploy.

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The FCC allowing LTE-U trials to happen https://www.fcc.gov/news-events/blog/2016/01/29/next-step-lte-u-conducting-limited-lte-u-performance-tests








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  1. Hi Wade,

    Nice post. LTE-U and LTE-LAA both aggregate licensed and unlicensed bands. The only functional difference is that LTE-U aggregates the unlicensed downlink only, and LAA is both uplink and downlink.

    Also, chipsets are commodified very quickly, and are only a choke-point for bleeding-edge early adopters.

    John K. Bramfeld


    • Hi John,
      Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing this rollout but you are correct that we will need to see the product. Luckily Nokia has a product and tested it. It will be good to see a live test in the real world.


  2. Having worked extensively with both Wi-Fi and LTE, there’s no doubt that LTE is a better air interface technology, but one has to look at chipset cost, device penetration, and time to market with LTE-U. Wi-Fi is much more than a hotspot deployment. Take a look at E-Rate initiatives for education, billions are invested in K-12 across the nation that are focused on 5 GHz access. LTE-U does present contention issues with the incumbent Wi-Fi networks and puts these valuable investments at risk. To your point, it is unlicensed spectrum, so as long as the technology adheres to the FCC guidelines, then it’s fair game. I feel that LTE-U is more of a carrier technology, than a consumer technology and will require careful thought and consideration for those who have heavily invested in Wi-Fi.


    • Hi Ron,
      Thank you for the feedback, I appreciate it.
      The price of the chipset will be a big factor, and it will be in the device with Wi-Fi, I don’t see Wi-Fi going away. That’s is a great point. It may affect the devices but I don’t think it will be a huge impact.
      As for the spectrum, I know that people that don’t want to invest anything more in Wi-Fi won’t be interested. I see it as a way for the carriers to expand coverage in a cost effective way. Maybe the bigger Wi-Fi deployments, like what Comcast has done, will consider LTE-U over Wi-Fi so that they can get the carrier offloading business without any investment in spectrum. It would be a cost effective way to have an add on to the hotspots they already have out there.
      The devices may not be around for another year or so but I see LTE-U as part of the standard chipset down the road, like bluetooth and wi-fi.


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