Future LTE networks could set up shop in your office

Big names like Intel and Ericsson will help to push a form of LTE that enterprises could buy

Abstract laptop showing wireless internet and floating apps against black background
Credit: Thinkstock

Your next enterprise wireless network might use LTE -- if Qualcomm and some powerful partners succeed in pushing cellular beyond just mobile operators.

This week, Intel, Ericsson and Nokia joined Qualcomm in forming the MulteFire Alliance, an industry group to develop and promote LTE that runs only on the kind of unlicensed frequencies that companies use for Wi-Fi.

LTE networks in enterprises may be a long time in coming. Where a vast industry has grown up to meet companies' indoor wireless requirements, small cellular base stations are relatively new and have been designed primarily for service providers. But in cases where businesses specifically need cellular coverage or local networks need to be something more than private LANs, unlicensed LTE might have a strong role to play.

Today's LTE networks use licensed spectrum that's exclusive to one operator, typically a mobile carrier. Because licensed spectrum is so hard to get and usually expensive, Qualcomm and other companies are coming up with ways to use LTE on unlicensed frequencies like the 5GHz band used by Wi-Fi. While most of the action on unlicensed LTE so far has been around systems for carriers to use with licensed networks, Qualcomm is also promoting it for use without any licensed network.

MulteFire, based on Qualcomm technology, would let small and large businesses roll out small LTE cells around their sites. LTE uses spectrum more efficiently than Wi-Fi does and can take advantage of a universe of features built for LTE, such as handoffs between cells, backers say.

MulteFire might be even more exciting for venues like stadiums and arenas, where the owner or a service provider could deploy a special network for fast data service. A so-called "neutral host" network like this could be made available to subscribers on multiple carriers without having to get into those carriers' licensed frequencies or coordinate with their nearby cells. Users with phones equipped for MulteFire could come into the venue and automatically start using the network.

But for now, MulteFire faces the same challenge as unlicensed LTE for regular mobile networks: Opposition from manufacturers and consumer groups that say LTE isn't ready to use the same channels as Wi-Fi without cutting into Wi-Fi performance. Players from both sides are now trying to work out how the two kinds of networks can coexist.

The MulteFire Alliance will help develop a global technical specification, set up product certification and come up with use cases for the technology, all while ensuring MulteFire doesn't interfere with Wi-Fi. One step in that direction is including a "listen before talk" feature that regulators are demanding in unlicensed LTE in places including Europe and Japan.

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