Google Fiber is hardly the only threat to ISP mainstays like Comcast and Time Warner Cable these days. There are three times as many wireless accounts as there are cable broadband accounts in the United States, and wireless growth is seen continuing at a much more rapid pace than land-based broadband growth. What’s more, usage patterns are continuing to shift toward mobile devices and away from traditional computers.
The nation’s top cable companies have spent quite a bit of money of late building out large Wi-Fi networks across the country, and they have spent even more money marketing their networks of Wi-Fi hotspots. Some ISPs are even launching their own Wi-Fi only mobile phone services. Why? Because mobile is the battleground of the future and ISPs need to do everything they can to keep customers connected while they’re on the go.
But a new technology is emerging that may threaten to weaken the quality of ISPs’ Wi-Fi networks while strengthening their competitors’ cellular services, and Big Cable has no plans to take things lying down.
“It has become abundantly clear that, aside from Google, one of the main groups working to stall permission-less innovation, as well as broadband competition, is the cable industry,” writes Mike Wendy of Media Freedom. “More specifically, Big Cable has been moving in overdrive to create fear, uncertainty and doubt around the proposed rollout of LTE-U (i.e., LTE cell services designed to operate over unlicensed spectrum to relieve cell site congestion) by the competitive mobile carriers, hoping that the FCC helps it forestall or squash this nascent technological competition under the guise of protecting Wi-Fi.”
Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile US have each announced plans to use “LTE-Unlicensed” technology in an effort to bolster coverage and boost data speeds. This tech uses 5GHz Wi-Fi airwaves to carry LTE data in areas where coverage from carriers’ own licensed airwaves is not abundant.
There is currently no legislation to prevent companies like Verizon and T-Mobile from using 5GHz Wi-Fi frequencies to carry LTE communications, and there is also no conclusive evidence that LTE-U communications interfere with Wi-Fi signals. But cable companies are still doing everything in their power to change prevent the commercial availability of LTE-U.
Now, it must be noted that Wendy’s Media Freedom initiative is “supported in part by communications industry and foundation contributions,” but Big Cable’s fight against LTE-U is well documented. And as Wendy alleges, cable companies are indeed seeking the help of the FCC and its leader, former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler, in preventing LTE-U from becoming a threat.
Just last month, the Wi-Fi Alliance asked the FCC not to approve the public use of any LTE-U equipment until it conducts extensive tests of its own. While the Alliance counts several big ISPs like Comcast as members, wireless carriers are also members, and they expressed their disapproval of the move.
“As members of the Wi-Fi Alliance interested in extending the benefits of LTE on unlicensed spectrum to our customers, we urge the Commission to reject this unprecedented request,” Verizon and four other carriers said in a note to the FCC. “Allowing an organization that certifies interoperability for one particular technology to become the gatekeeper for another technology to use unlicensed spectrum would jeopardize the Commission’s entire framework that has made unlicensed spectrum so successful as an open platform for permissionless innovation.”
According to Media Freedom, LTE-U doesn’t really pose much of a threat when it comes to interference. Instead, the threat is largely competitive.
“Make no doubt about it – LTE-U is a competitive threat to Big Cable because it will provide consumers with a better wireless service,” Wendy wrote. “But you wouldn’t know that from their public spin. It’s warning all who can hear that LTE-U will somehow interfere with Wi-Fi for everyone if and when it gets rolled out.” He goes on to note that the results of early tests show that LTE-U and Wi-Fi “play nicely,” and that Big Cable’s claims to the contrary are unfounded.