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Battleground 2016: Wi-Fi vs. LTE-U

While consumers switch their devices between cellular connections and public and private Wi-Fi networks, an ongoing debate brews underneath the surface which will shape how we connect our mobile devices to the Internet for years to come. Until recently, Wi-Fi had little competition in the unlicensed spectrum, but as LTE-U (unlicensed) gains momentum, it threatens to disrupt this position. The good news is that both solutions have unique benefits and can coexist harmoniously, but only if implemented properly.

The main instigator in this battle is the arbitrary duty cycling mechanism that LTE-U uses which trumps Wi-Fi communications. On the other hand, Wi-Fi uses a mechanism known as “listen before talk” (LBT) that senses the environment before it transmits. If the spectrum reaches capacity, any new transmissions must wait until there is adequate space. LTE-U transmits without first assessing the capacity of the spectrum, potentially stomping on Wi-Fi transmissions already in progress. Luckily, the solution already exists. LTE-U can be programmed to include an LBT protocol, thus leveling the playing field with Wi-Fi and enabling both systems to coexist in the unlicensed spectrum. 

In fact, this approach has already been mandated in Europe and will likely expand globally as other governments take up the debate in earnest. However, it may leave many wondering why Wi-Fi shouldn’t simply give way to LTE-U in a survival of the fittest approach. The answer to that question is slightly more complicated, but businesses and consumers alike should familiarise themselves with the drawbacks before they pay the price.

Speed

While LTE-U may have the upper hand when it comes to brute force takeover of the unlicensed spectrum, it cannot rival the pure speeds available with Wi-Fi. The data rates and capacity of today’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard extend into multi-Gbps, far outpacing LTE. And the forthcoming 802.11ax standard will enable ten times those speeds. LTE will not catch up in the foreseeable future so Wi-Fi will remain the weapon of choice for those with the need for speed, which means “everyone”. From households supporting multiple video streams simultaneously to financial institutions carrying out thousands of transactions a minute, time is valuable.

Also, while Wi-Fi is faster, both approaches utilise the spectrum efficiently. Neither one is fundamentally better at handling a higher volume of traffic. Hence, there’s no reason they should not coexist, or that one should be selected based on its ability to support more users.

Cost

One aspect of the debate that Australians are particularly familiar with is cost. In fact, a recent report by Finder showed that Australians spend $10 million per year on excess mobile data charges already. LTE-U will not differ from the current cellular pricing structure with users incurring data charges based on consumption. As we look to 2016, storage synchronisation with popular cloud-based applications such as Dropbox, Google Drive and iCloud will increase dramatically, in addition to IoT traffic. The combined effect of those trends will lead to astronomical bills if businesses are required pay for that much data. For organisations or individuals looking to transfer vast amounts of data, Wi-Fi will remain the most economical option well into the future. If LTE-U has free reign over the spectrum without a fair sharing mechanism such as LBT, it will attract users but the providers charging for data are the ones that will benefit. In the end, consumers will end up paying more for slower Internet access.

Aside from the data charges, organisations and individuals need to look at the cost of the infrastructure itself. Today we see Wi-Fi networks powered by 802.11ac Wave 2 and application-aware policy control that rival the abilities of 4G/LTE infrastructure, but at a fraction of the cost. That investment in Wi-Fi technology innovation will continue at a strong pace. Providers investing in LTE infrastructure will pass their costs on to the consumer. However, with less expensive Wi-Fi networks able to provide better connections, that money is not well spent.

The one reoccurring theme when looking at the Wi-Fi vs. LTE-U debate is that if LTE-U has free reign over the unlicensed spectrum, consumers will suffer the consequences. It’s a slower, more expensive option and the divide will increase in the new year. LTE-U certainly has a place in the unlicensed spectrum and can provide valuable coverage for consumers, but alongside Wi-Fi, not on top of it.