Reading some of the literature about LTE-U (and LAA) leads you to believe that its deployment is a foregone conclusion: operators love it; vendors support it, and products will be available within months. But operators lack the sales channel into the enterprise where LTE-U is envisioned to be deployed and provide most value.
While LTE-U may find its way into the handset fairly rapidly, its path into the Wi-Fi access nodes will be long and arduous as that ecosystem is not particularly friendly to LTE-U (Cisco for example), while the channels of the small cell vendors, such as Huawei and Ericsson, into the enterprise are less established.
The enterprise is the arena where LTE-U and Wi-Fi will fight it out, and in this, you have to favor the incumbent technology only because of its established market presence and channels. Even from a technology perspective, Wi-Fi has a path to integrate into the LTE network through LWA (LTE Wi-Fi link aggregation). LWA is a viable alternative into the enterprise and removes certain obstacles which enhance its prospects vis a vis LTE-U.Whether or not LTE-U is more efficient than Wi-Fi is irrelevant as the market force is more powerful than technology performance. Moreover, LTE-U will not provide any cost savings – but in fact will add cost. But what LTE-U provides is relief to the operators on the planning issue which has bogged down small cells deployments. LTE-U does not have to be planned and can be deployed on ad-hoc basis where and when needed. This is a major positive feature. But the fundamental questions remain. Will there be room for two unlicensed band technologies? If everything that can be achieved with Wi-Fi can be done with LTE-U/LAA and without all the market issues to contend with, will LTE-U/LAA make it? Can LTE-U/LAA find the oxygen to grow in the enterprise/indoor market while the market windpipes are closed? There is another point to consider: LTE-U is viewed as a way for operators to save licensed spectrum by shifting traffic to unlicensed bands; but will this tarnish the image of LTE? Unlicensed spectrum is liable for higher interference and there’s less control over performance. People are used to Wi-Fi and are more tolerant to performance problems when the service is free. But how will LTE-U in 5 GHz impact the image of the carriers and the services they provide? In principle, it is great concept to have users unaware of the service technology through seamless selection, but this has the potential to backfire. Carriers built their business on ensuring SLAs with planned networks where interference is managed. This cannot continue with LTE-U and requires some thought on part of the carriers on how to approach this issue. LTE-U is a great idea – but its success is far from being a foregone conclusion and may prove too expensive and risky, certainly if the modus operandi remains the same. What is required to help make it successful is a complete change in the go-to-market strategy that enables deployments in the enterprise market.