Qualcomm to use unlicensed spectrum to fasten smartphone data

By | February 27, 2015

Our smartphones are increasingly demanding more and more data from the cellular networks and that’s clogging up the networks. That fancy high-speed LTE modem in your iPhone may soon be moving at a snail’s pace, especially in densely populated areas. It is expected the requirement for mobile data will increase 10 times by 2020 i.e., reaching about 25 exabytes a month up from the current 2.5 exabytes, according to Ericsson and Cisco.


San Diago chipmaker Qualcomm has a solution to it. It is venturing forward with a way to use airwaves that are usually reserved for Wi-Fi. It is launching a new LTE modem that will be able to access the unlicensed wireless spectrum.  The unlicensed spectrum is the frequency that the Federal Communications Commission has set aside to be free. It can’t be acquired by big carriers such as AT&T and Verizon. Currently Wi-Fi and Bluetooth exist on these unlicensed frequencies.


LTE-U, as companies call it, differs from standard LTE in two key ways: It operates at much shorter ranges, and it uses a free-for-all, unlicensed range of radio frequencies instead of the licensed spectrum sold in government auctions. Multiple companies designed elements of the technology, which an industry group is still considering whether to establish as a standard.

Matt Grob, a Qualcomm executive vice president and its chief technology officer said LTE-U can send three to four times as much data through a given band of frequencies as Wi-Fi. The key objective is to improve the performance and cost of wireless networks to help the burgeoning demand of data, said Grob at the interview.

Some raised concerns that moving into unlicensed spectrum might interfere with Wi-Fi networks, but the company has assured that LTE-U technology can co-exist alongside Wi-Fi, based on internal testing it has done. Still, LTE-U has its dissenters. The non-interference aspect hasn’t been proven on a vast scale, and some operators, including AT&T and China Mobile, have a lot invested in using Wi-Fi itself to boost their back-end networks. The technology has been called ‘rude’ in the past for its lack of ‘listen before talk.’

In addition, Qualcomm also needs to help build the network infrastructure. It’s releasing LTE chips that can access unlicensed frequencies for small cells, which are small radio access nodes used to improve a network’s reach. Wireless network operators can deploy this for their customers to give them access these frequencies.

Qualcomm isn’t the first to announce plans to roll out this kind of technology. A few days ago, T-mobile said it would be installing small cell units for unlicensed radio bands with hardware built by Nokia Networks. But considering Qualcomm is the biggest provider of LTE modems in high-end Android phones, Qualcomm’s step in this direction is an important move.

Qualcomm’s announcement is yet another indicator that cellular networks and Wi-Fi coming together more and more, said Grob. “Cellular is moving towards smaller radius, unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi is moving from ad-hoc to more centralized management,” he said.