Positioning License-Assisted Access (LAA) Relative to WiFi

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins

Summary Bullets:

  • License-assisted access (LAA) poses messaging/positioning challenges for RAN vendors.
  • Each vendor’s LAA positioning may vary based on their position in WiFi, devices and other factors.

This month, Ericsson has been heavily promoting the concept of license-assisted access (using LTE in unlicensed spectrum as a supplement to LTE in licensed spectrum), with press releases, videos and so forth, demonstrating some of the challenges that other RAN vendors will need to navigate as the technology becomes more prominent.

In evangelizing LAA, Ericsson’s doing a good job of juggling some of the parallel tasks required. It’s touting the benefits both to operators and to enterprises (e.g., faster data speeds for enterprises, unified network management for operators). That’s important since the primary application is in enterprise coverage (the first products to gain this functionality will be Ericsson’s enterprise small cells). And it’s fitting that Ericsson chose the Consumer Electronics Show, as opposed to Mobile World Congress, for publicly launching this effort. It understands, from attempts to penetrate the enterprise with infrastructure solutions such as the Radio Dot System, that it helps to win over end users and operators simultaneously. (And in the case of LAA, winning over end users and operators can help entice device makers – another reason choosing CES makes sense.)

LTE WiFi Fair SharingHowever, when it comes to LAA, there’s more juggling to be done than just selling operators and enterprises on the value. Because there’s been some concern (especially among WiFi players) about how LAA might clash with WiFi, proponents of LAA (including Ericsson) have been quick to make the case that the two can co-exist constructively. But, another interesting question is: How well will the two get along inside the same vendor’s portfolio?

Ericsson is obviously well-invested in WiFi, particularly since its 2012 acquisition of BelAir Networks. It’s been trumpeting the benefits of converged cellular/WiFi networks, offering real-time traffic-steering solutions between the two media and controllers that allow operators to dig into convergence without having to wait for standards-based technologies to flourish. And yet, to argue for LAA, one needs to make a case for WiFi’s insufficiency in some regard. In one of its promotional videos, Ericsson says, “LTE users receive good performance, even when the system begins to become overloaded. However, WiFi sometimes suffers if there’s too much network congestion.”

Thus far, the vendor’s doing a good job striking a balance in its messaging, positioning LAA and WiFi as two arrows in a quiver. It says WiFi will be an optional feature of its RBS 6402, the first LAA-capable product. However, it also promises to eventually bring LAA to the Radio Dot System, which – so far, at least – hasn’t included WiFi.

This isn’t just Ericsson’s issue to tackle. All major RAN vendors need to think about how to best tailor LAA messaging to their own broader positioning as companies. RAN vendors that have less of a presence in the WiFi space (I’m looking at you, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia and SpiderCloud) have a particular motivation to push LAA. And vendors that have in-house devices businesses (Huawei, Samsung, ZTE) may have a particular advantage, as LAA will require device support, lending credibility to vendors that can demonstrate expertise and cohesive initiative on both the network and device sides. Meanwhile, all of the established RAN vendors may be able to use LAA to combat Cisco Systems, which is pressing ever harder into the RAN space with partner Altiostar under its wing. LAA gives those vendors a stronger attack against Cisco’s cellular/WiFi convergence story (for example, giving them an alternative to propose after raising questions such as “Are LTE small cells and WiFi access points really optimally in the same places?”).

However, taking shots at Cisco’s WiFi convergence story is harder when you have a WiFi convergence story of your own. Thus, navigating these messaging and positioning hurdles is one of the key challenges LAA proponents face.

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