Mo­bile data pit cell­phone car­ri­ers against ca­ble giants

The Washington Post Sunday - - TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION - BY BRIAN FUNG brian.fung@wash­post.com

Visit al­most any cof­fee shop in Amer­ica to­day, and chances are it’s got a sign advertising free WiFi. Out­side, though, you won’t get very far be­fore you lose the cafe’s con­nec­tion. That’s when your smart­phone knows it’s time to pick up a data sig­nal from the near­est cell tower, so that you can surf the Web and watch YouTube wher­ever you go next.

Cel­lu­lar data is one of the great in­no­va­tions of the 21st cen­tury. Now it’s about to take its next big leap, one its sup­port­ers say will im­prove ser­vice on car­ri­ers such as Ver­i­zon and T-Mo­bile. Its crit­ics, how­ever, say it could un­der­mine WiFi, a free, time-tested tech­nol­ogy that han­dles roughly half of the In­ter­net’s mo­bile traf­fic to­day.

It’s called LTE-U, and it’s be­ing de­vel­oped by Ver­i­zon, the chip­maker Qual­comm and a num­ber of other tele­com com­pa­nies. The in­no­va­tion rep­re­sents the next evo­lu­tion in mo­bile data — and a loom­ing flash point for two gi­gan­tic in­dus­tries.

If you use any of the four ma­jor na­tional cell car­ri­ers, you’re prob­a­bly fa­mil­iar with 4G LTE, the cur­rent cut­ting edge of mo­bile-data tech­nol­ogy. Un­der ideal con­di­tions, it pro­vides down­load speeds that ri­val what you can get on a wired con­nec­tion — fast enough to down­load a song in less than a minute.

LTE-U is vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to LTE, but with one key dif­fer­ence: It runs on the same fre­quen­cies that WiFi does. Un­like reg­u­lar LTE, which pig­gy­backs on air­waves owned ex­clu­sively by your car­rier, LTE-U trav­els on public air­waves that are free to any­one. Garage door openers, cord­less phones, WiFi routers — all also trans­mit over these open chan­nels.

In­dus­try engi­neers prom­ise that LTE-U will de­liver faster speeds and down­loads and that it will make the most dif­fer­ence in crowded ar­eas, such as cities and univer­si­ties, where net­works tend to get con­gested.

Un­der LTE-U, your de­vice will prob­a­bly re­port be­ing on “LTE,” just as it al­ways has. But its in­tro­duc­tion re­flects an un­prece­dented move by wire­less car­ri­ers onto open air­waves — known in the in­dus­try as un­li­censed spec­trum — and that’s go­ing to have im­por­tant reper­cus­sions.

To cel­lu­lar providers, WiFi rep­re­sents a huge missed op­por­tu­nity. In­ter­net con­sump­tion on cel­lu­lar data net­works — your 3G or 4G con­nec­tion — could have grown by a whop­ping 84 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to Cisco. But be­cause con­sumers shunted so much traf­fic to WiFi, that fig­ure was much lower, at 69 per­cent.

Car­ri­ers could charge you for all that ex­tra ac­cess to the mo­bile-data net­work. In­stead they’re los­ing out when you hop onto WiFi at your home or of­fice. And LTE-U is the in­dus­try’s so­lu­tion.

The ca­ble in­dus­try, on the other hand, wants to keep you on WiFi as much as pos­si­ble.

This is the math they fear: By 2019, Amer­i­cans are ex­pected to con­sume nearly 10 times as much mo­bile data as they did in 2014. By then, 77 per­cent of all In­ter­net traf­fic will be sent and re­ceived over mo­bile de­vices rather than sta­tion­ary PCs. That’s not good for ca­ble, an in­dus­try that built its rep­u­ta­tion on run­ning fast (but fixed) In­ter­net ser­vice into peo­ple’s homes and busi­nesses.

“Wire­less is king,” said Robert Pep­per, Cisco’s vice pres­i­dent of global tech­nol­ogy pol­icy.

To keep up, ca­ble com­pa­nies will need to of­fer a so­lu­tion that lets cus­tomers use their ser­vices out­side the home.

The work­around: In­stead of keep­ing sub­scribers chained to their ca­ble boxes, com­pa­nies are let­ting them take ad­van­tage of other peo­ple’s routers, too. This means that if you’re a Com­cast cus­tomer in Philadelphia, you can log on to any el­i­gi­ble Xfinity hotspot in, say, Washington. Thanks to a roam­ing agree­ment for ca­ble-pow­ered WiFi hotspots, Com­cast cus­tomers can even use routers be­long­ing to Time Warner Ca­ble in New York.

In 2012, the ca­ble in­dus­try’s WiFi con­sor­tium had 100,000 public, out-of-home WiFi hotspots to its name. To­day, it’s more like 400,000, cre­at­ing a rudi­men­tary if patchy equiv­a­lent of a cel­lu­lar net­work.

Firms such as Cable­vi­sion have ex­per­i­mented with pro­vid­ing a kind of cel­lu­lar ser­vice over WiFi in re­cent months. Non-ca­ble com­pa­nies such as-Google and Re­pub­lic Wire­less also be­lieve that WiFi can cheaply sup­port voice calls with less re­liance on the tra­di­tional cel­lu­lar net­work run by com­pa­nies such as Ver­i­zon and AT&T.

Both in­dus­tries need each other. Cel­lu­lar providers rely on the WiFi net­work to ease con­ges­tion on their pro­pri­etary net­works, and the ca­ble in­dus­try prob­a­bly won’t be able to pro­vide a com­pelling cel­lu­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with­out part­ner­ing with a cell provider in ar­eas lack­ing cov­er­age.

But there’s no deny­ing that as each be­comes more like the other, the ca­ble and cel­lu­lar in­dus­tries in­creas­ingly com­pete for cus­tomers. Can LTE-U co­ex­ist with WiFi? Ten­sion stems from some­thing else, too: a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in tech­ni­cal de­sign that could stran­gle WiFi, giv­ing cel­lu­lar providers the up­per hand over ca­ble com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to LTE-U’s crit­ics.

Be­cause it has to share the air­waves with so many other wire­less de­vices such as Blue­tooth head­sets and wire­less mice, WiFi an­ten­nas fol­low a “po­lite­ness” pro­to­col that con­trols when they trans­mit and re­ceive data. When your smart­phone is on WiFi and it senses other de­vices com­mu­ni­cat­ing over the same fre­quen­cies, it backs off un­til the chan­nel is clear. It’s a lot like the automotive prin­ci­ple of yield­ing to pedes­tri­ans in a cross­walk.

That’s not the case with to­day’s LTE tech­nolo­gies, in part be­cause LTE was de­signed with pro­pri­etary net­works in mind. So if left unchecked, it could pre­vent WiFi de­vices from up­load­ing or down­load­ing con­tent from the In­ter­net — the equiv­a­lent of run­ning through the cross­walk, the next five stop­lights and over who­ever might be in the way.

In­ter­fer­ence be­tween the two tech­nolo­gies can slash WiFi trans­mis­sion rates by 75 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a Google white pa­per filed last month to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The ca­ble in­dus­try’s top trade group, the Na­tional Ca­ble and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion, ar­gued that the tech­nol­ogy could be “dis­as­trous” with­out fur­ther pro­tec­tions and “will se­verely de­grade con­sumers’ WiFi ex­pe­ri­ence, ren­der­ing un­us­able many ser­vices that are wide­spread to­day, to say noth­ing of the in­no­va­tive new uses cur­rently on the hori­zon.”

Whether it’s voice calls, video con­fer­enc­ing or online games, ser­vices that rely on a steady WiFi con­nec­tion could be slowed or in­ter­rupted by LTE-U. It could af­fect schools, li­braries, home­own­ers and small busi­nesses.

LTE-U’s de­sign­ers say they’ve im­ple­mented safe­guards to en­sure that it co­ex­ists peace­fully with WiFi. For in­stance, LTE-U turns on only when the cel­lu­lar net­work is full and needs ex­tra ca­pac­ity. Even then, it can only help a de­vice down­load data — it doesn’t have the abil­ity to upload it.

“We’re very ex­cited about LTE-U,” said Dean Bren­ner, Qual­comm’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of gov­ern­ment af­fairs. “It’s been de­signed from the ground up to be a very good neigh­bor to WiFi, and in many cases, ac­tu­ally im­proves WiFi through­put.”

A de­vice run­ning LTE-U will first look for the least oc­cu­pied WiFi chan­nel to min­i­mize the chances of in­ter­rupt­ing WiFi. And then it cal­cu­lates, based on the num­ber of other de­vices shar­ing the chan­nel, what pro­por­tion of the time it’s al­lowed to be ac­tive on it. If there are three WiFi-based tablets and an LTE-U smart­phone on the same chan­nel, the smart­phone will ad­just it­self to talk only a quar­ter of the time.

Even this may not help much when WiFi is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing heavy use, said Clint Brown, a di­rec­tor of wire­less ini­tia­tives at Broad­com and the vice chair for the WiFi Al­liance.

“It may look for a clear chan­nel,” Brown said. “But once it’s on a clear chan­nel, odds are the way it pro­vides fair­ness may be about how much time you use the chan­nel rather than whether there’s traf­fic.”

Tele­com in­dus­try of­fi­cials say their ef­fort to de­sign a shar­ing mech­a­nism that works is ev­i­dence of their good­will to­ward WiFi. Af­ter all, cel­lu­lar providers rely on it, too.

One of­fi­cial for a large tele­com com­pany said that un­der the cur­rent rules, his firm could roll out the ex­ist­ing LTE on un­li­censed air­waves to­day, but the re­sult­ing in­ter­fer­ence would make it a hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence— hence all of the work to de­velop LTE-U, which will be more po­lite.

This fight is al­ready set­tled — over­seas, any­way.

In places like Europe and Ja­pan, strict rules on mo­bile data re­quire car­ri­ers’ tech­nol­ogy to lis­ten be­fore talk­ing, just like WiFi does by de­fault. To meet that stan­dard, a ver­sion of LTE-U called LAA, or Li­cense-As­sisted Ac­cess, is be­ing de­signed. An added ben­e­fit is that LAA is ca­pa­ble of up­loads and down­loads, un­like LTE-U.

So why doesn’t the U.S. cel­lu­lar in­dus­try adopt that stan­dard? The com­pa­nies say they don’t want to wait around for LAA to be fi­nal­ized when the de­mand for cel­lu­lar data is grow­ing so quickly.

CHAR­LIE NYE/IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS STAR VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

LTE-U, a tech­nol­ogy be­ing de­vel­oped by cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers, will run on the same fre­quen­cies as WiFi. In­ter­fer­ence be­tween the two tech­nolo­gies could slash WiFi trans­mis­sion rates, ac­cord­ing to Google.

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