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Competition for standards and spectrum

In relation to broadcasting spectrum, in Europe, the decision-making process in the lead up to the WRC-15 demonstrated the formation of generally three groups of actors – the broadcasters, the mobile cellular players and the wireless broadband industry representatives.

The broadcasters, the primary users of the spectrum in the 700 and sub-700 MHz bands, have been backed by an alliance of: broadcast network operators, Programme Making and Special Events (PMSE) community, independent production industry, media workers and unions, listener and viewer associations. As the decision to grant the mobile operators access to the upper 700 MHz band was already made at WRC-12 and scheduled to become effective immediately after the WRC-15, the aim of these players was to prevent further expansion of the mobile industry into the sub-700 MHz band. The mobile cellular players, led by GSMA and backed by representatives of the semiconductor and mobile consumer electronics industry, argue that the demand for spectrum for mobile internet services required this expansion, so that faster and more ubiquitous service could be provided to their users.

Between these opposing ends, a third group of stakeholders has emerged, not explicitly demanding extra spectrum, rather the use of the available ‘white spaces’ (unoccupied spectrum between broadcast channels) on the basis of licence-exempt regime. Similar to cellular operators, the proponents of the use of white space usage for wireless broadband access (WiFi) – White Spectrum Alliance (WSA) and Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) – argued that this would contribute to the affordability and ubiquity of the internet access in rural and isolated areas. Google and Facebook have been particularly vocal due to their plans to move into the provision of audio-visual content streaming.

While the mobile cellular industry has relied on licensed spectrum in order to operate, WiFi standards enable access to wireless internet using unlicensed spectrum. Over the last few years, tensions have appeared between providers over advancements in the mobile cellular LTE standards (e.g. LTE-Unlicensed, LTE-U; Licence Assisted Access, LAA) to enable access to unlicensed spectrum. The standards could be utilised for accessing spectrum in the above-mentioned TV white spaces (TVWS) (see, Almeida, 2013; Baykas, 2012) as well as spectrum in the 3.5 GHz and 5 GHz brands. In 2014, Verizon in cooperation with other consumer electronics and software developing companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Samsung initiated the LTE-U Forum to develop LTE-U specifications allowing the operation of consumer devices in the 5 GHz band. Another forum, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) of regional telecommunications standard developing organisations (SDOs) which has historically established global mobile standards, has also focused on the development of LAA specifications for using the unlicensed bands on the principle of “listen before talk” (LBT). The LBT "term means that devices listen to see if there is Wi-Fi activity on a channel and if there is, they do not transmit". What is expected from any organisation attempting to deploy specifications for mobile cellular operations through unlicensed spectrum is that they do not interfere and cause disruption to the existing services in the band. In this case, Wi-Fi.

Filings to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s consultation on the latest developments in the LTE-U and LAA technology show the two sides of actor groups (Verizon, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, on the one and Broadcom, Microsoft, Comcast, Google, Cablevision, NTCA, on the other) are divided over fair coexistence prospects of LTE-U and LAA with WiFi. While the latter group of players has not opposed LTE activity in unlicensed bands, it has strongly rejected any actions from the former to “unilaterally deploy their own non-standardized form of unlicensed LTE in the US.” In relation to this, the filings also reveal divisions between different SDOs, e.g. the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) where the WiFi family of standards have emerged, 3GPP, LTE-U Forum and Wi-Fi Alliance, whose members include companies from all sides. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has demanded that the 3GPP ensure stronger mechanisms to ensure industry consensus, while other WiFi supporting companies have rejected the eligibility of the LTE-U Forum to go forward with LTE-U deployment without clear evidence of non-interference.

Eventually, however, industry collaboration has occurred within the Wi-Fi Alliance Coexistence Task Group to develop a test plan for LTE-U and WiFi coexistence in the same spectrum bands. The 3GPP has also been carrying out coexistence tests between LAA and WiFi. Interestingly, the two different specifications for the operation of LTE in unlicensed spectrum, LTE-U and LAA, have represented divisions along geographical lines, where the US and Asia have embraced LTE-U, while Europe – the LAA.

Public interest and consumer advocacy groups such as Open Technology have also taken part in the debate, in support of WiFi consumers.