The FCC has made a controversial new kind of LTE available for future phones — here’s what it means for you

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday announced that it has authorised the first hardware that will let wireless carriers send mobile internet over unlicensed airwaves.

On its face, that sounds pretty boring. But the new tech, known as LTE-U (the U standing for “unlicensed”), aims to give carriers more network capacity, which may in turn result in smoother mobile internet for your next phone.

Sure enough, minutes after the FCC’s announcement, T-Mobile said that it was now deploying LTE-U tech into its LTE network. Verizon, which helped lead the push for the tech’s adoption, also applauded the move, saying in a statement that LTE-U would give its customers “more data at faster speeds where they live, work, and play.”

LTE-U won’t expand a given carrier’s coverage, but it aims to improve LTE service in crowded areas like offices, stadiums, and denser city environments. T-Mobile said tapping into the newly available spectrum will help it deliver faster “gigabit LTE” to more people, too.

John legere t-mobile
T-Mobile US CEO John Legere. John Moore/Getty Images

You’ll likely need a new phone to see the benefits, though. While the LTE modems built into today’s highest-end smartphone chipsets can theoretically support LTE-U, T-Mobile said most devices compatible with the tech will start rolling out “this spring.”

Recently appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been no stranger to controversy in his first few weeks on the job, however, and the decision to authorise LTE-U isn’t entirely different.

Carriers have been aiming to use common, unlicensed spectrum — specifically, the 5GHz wireless band — with their private networks for years, in part because it allows them to potentially improve their increasingly in-demand service without making significant investments in new infrastructure.

But the concept had previously raised concerns from WiFi-dependent firms like Google and cable companies that sell in-home WiFi service. Letting LTE operate on WiFi and Bluetooth’s usual turf, the thinking goes, could lead to overcrowding and slow down other connected devices.

The industry has since worked to lessen those concerns. The WiFi Alliance, a trade group that certifies WiFi equipment, ultimately released a “Coexistence Test Plan” in September that sought to ensure LTE-U devices wouldn’t interfere with WiFi out in the wild. The idea is to let mobile networks sense when WiFi and Bluetooth aren’t using a particular channel, then apply LTE-U when a carrier’s licensed network is congested.

The FCC’s notice on Wednesday said the newly authorised devices (from network equipment makers Ericsson and Nokia) did comply with the coexistence plan, but that doing so isn’t a requirement.

In a statement, the WiFi Alliance said it was encouraged that all sides involved have developed a way to coexist, but urged carriers to continue holding up their end of the deal.

“It is critical that stakeholders continue to follow through on their commitments by ensuring equipment deployments operate as tested to ensure LTE-U services coexist fairly in the real world,” the group said.

Verizon, for what it’s worth, says all of its LTE-U vendors will comply with the plan from now on. T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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