Just about all of the major networks are either talking about 5G, testing it or implementing it into pilot testing equipment at this point. The big question to be addressed, for some, is how exactly 5G networks will be delivered and supplemented. Another hard question is how to retrofit networks so that there’s room for current tech and the future’s ambitious 5G networks. One of the more popular answers to the second question has been LTE-U, or quite simply, using currently unlicensed spectrum to deliver LTE networks. How much unlicensed spectrum there is to go around and how it may be used, however, could easily change after this month’s spectrum auction, leading many to look for alternatives for their networks. AT&T in particular, although testing LTE-U, has stated that a better option for them may be a different technology called LAA, or License-Assisted Access.
LAA technology’s main boon is that it ensures listen-before-talk compatibility for network equipment, which drastically cuts down on possible interference. On top of that, it’s in the process of being officially certified by the 3GPP as a bona fide wireless standard that the industry can unify around. LTE-U, meanwhile, was developed outside of the watchful eyes of the overseers for modern open standards and, because of its somewhat show-stealing nature in not allowing other uses of unlicensed spectrum in its area, has had a fairly chilly reception from some of the bigger players in the cable and internet industries.
AT&T isn’t the only one to take a step back from the LTE-U hype train’s platform, however; rival T-Mobile also has plans for LAA, which include deploying it commercially in some markets before the end of the year. Verizon, meanwhile, has every intention of rolling out a commercial LTE-U network this year. Speaking to our source, FierceWireless, AT&T exec Tom Keathley said that LTE-U was still in testing despite ambitions for LAA, though they hadn’t decided yet as to whether they would be using it commercially. Asked about the status of the tests, Keathley declined to comment. The implications of that, at the moment, are a mystery, although it’s quite possible that AT&T’s plans for their network incorporating LAA won’t exactly be exclusive of LTE-U, which would make revealing a timeline, status or ETA for the tech just a bit unwise at this point.