UC-Santa Cruz Threatens to Block LTE Amid Cable, Wireless Fight on Standards

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By Lydia Beyoud

June 30 — The University of California at Santa Cruz might block wireless carriers from its Wi-Fi network if the wireless and cable industries can't agree on standards for deploying unlicensed technologies that won't interfere with Wi-Fi, according to the school's recent filing at the Federal Communications Commission.

UC Santa Cruz said it is concerned that proponents of long-term evolution-unlicensed (LTE-U) and licensed assisted access (LAA) wireless technologies haven't done enough to implement “listen before talk” protocols similar to those used by Wi-Fi, and thus may “dilute the value” of the university's annual $250,000 investment in Wi-Fi networks, according to their June 26 FCC reply comments.

The standards-setting body, 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), that is helping develop the technologies for deployment in 2016 appears to be “working on a schedule tied to their software release cycle and not completion of full development and testing,” the university's information technology department said in its filing. “We suspect as property owners we might be able to block carriers that lease our roofs from implementing technology that is harmful to our programs,” the university said before adding, “we would rather not have to do that.”

‘Listen Before Talk' System

The university fired that warning shot as the FCC received a second round of comments in a proceeding on the status of LTE-U and LAA technologies. Wi-Fi and cable companies, along with public interest groups, are worried that wireless carriers could foreclose other companies from using unlicensed spectrum as the agency intended.

The university said it wasn't positioned to offer a solution to make LTE-U a “good neighbor” to unlicensed Wi-Fi operations, but it urged the two industries to implement a default “listen before talk” access method to unlicensed spectrum “until some alternative can be shown to be demonstrably better without diluting the effectiveness of installed Wi-Fi systems.”

Stakeholders around the issue are becoming more entrenched, as evidenced in reply comments filed June 26 with the agency (Docket No. 15-105).

Wi-Fi and cable companies remain skeptical of pledges by device makers like Qualcomm Technologies Inc. and CTIA—The Wireless Association trade group, which represents the nation's largest carriers, that the coming rollout of LTE-U and LAA won't affect—and might even enhance, supporters say —Wi-Fi networks.

Workhorse of Internet

Future growth of the cable industry's high-speed data subscriptions and revenue is linked to the continued expansion of Wi-Fi, which is recognized as the workhorse of the Internet, giving consumers affordable access to high-bandwidth video and other data. The opening of more unlicensed spectrum has also enticed wireless carriers to deploy services in the same bands Wi-Fi operations now occupy.

T-Mobile USA Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. have both indicated an interest to deploy LTE-U services by 2016. Qualcomm has said it sees great opportunity in deploying small-cell devices on both licensed and unlicensed LTE bands.

The chief concern of cable and Wi-Fi groups is that wireless carriers will be able to link access to unlicensed airwaves to a licensed port, and use LTE-U or LAA to slow down or block Wi-Fi operations in the 5 gigahertz spectrum band, stymieing the continued growth of “Wi-Fi First” wireless carriers such as Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless. Four public interest groups said that Qualcomm, in particular, has “strong patent licensing incentives to promote licensed carrier-based unlicensed technologies in a manner that crowds out of disadvantages Wi-Fi deployments,” according to a joint filing.

Verizon and others refute those claims, saying it is unfair for Wi-Fi groups to demand that carriers implement “higher etiquette requirements than have been implemented for Wi-Fi or for other unlicensed technologies,” according to Verizon's reply comments.

Support for NCTA Proposal

Both sides are jockeying for position as the FCC decides what, if any, role it should play in the proceeding. A coalition of Wi-Fi interests has formed among industry and public interest groups, including Common Cause, Free Press, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge, to support a proposal advanced by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

NCTA, whose largest member is Comcast Corp., said the FCC should implement an oversight approach to standards-setting efforts, including having the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology convene a meeting with licensed and unlicensed representatives to start a process to establish effective sharing mechanisms; form a working group of FCC staff and industry engineers to work on the mechanisms and seek monthly progress updates from various standards-setting bodies; and retain an oversight role to make sure licensed users don't launch non-standard LTE-U services until the sharing mechanisms process has been settled to the FCC's satisfaction.

“Commission monitoring of the standards-setting process will not upset the principle of technology neutrality by ‘tilting the scales in favor of' one technology or another,” the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) said in its filing. “To the contrary, agency participation is essential to ensure that the standards ultimately adopted do not themselves skew the competitive landscape unduly in favor of one category of users,” WISPA said.

Wireless groups, meanwhile, continue to ask the FCC to stay back and let industry groups work things out among themselves.

Smaller Voices Weigh In

Smaller companies like Boca Raton, Fla.-based Airspan Networks, which offers enterprise-directed LTE services in more than 100 countries, countered the narrative that LTE-U was only of interest to industry giants.

Wi-Fi “does not have a monopoly on the innovation that is so important to the US economy,” Airspan said in its reply comments, in which it asked the FCC to “support technology neutral regulation in unlicensed spectrum bands” with a focus on spectrum sharing between licensed and unlicensed users.

Such sharing protocols should include carrier-sensing adaptive transmission (CSAT), an algorithm that helps LTE-U channel share with neighboring Wi-Fi operations, and listen before talk (LBT) protocols, Airspan said in its filing.

“However, Airspan would like to warn against the commonly held belief that CSAT and LBT alone will resolve all potential conflict between LTE and Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz band, thus leading to peaceful coexistence,” it said.

“While all efforts should be made to ensure the equitable sharing of the 5 GHz unlicensed band by separate technologies—as they may well offer distinct advantages to discrete market segments—vigilance must be kept to avoid such sharing becoming an accidental Trojan Horse that will ultimately cause the collapse of the 5 GHz band as a boon of technological innovation and economic prosperity,” the company said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Text of UC Santa Cruz's filing is at: http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001104269.

Text of Verizon's comments is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001104302.

Text of the public interest groups' filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001105564.

Text of NCTA's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001104449.

Text of WISPA's comments is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001102005.

Text of Airspan's filing is at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=60001104446.