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Coffee Shops and Home Routers Could Offer Nearby Phones a 4G Data Connection

Mobile chip company Qualcomm wants homes and businesses to set up their own open 4G hotspots just as they do Wi-Fi networks today.

Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous in homes and businesses thanks to the way anyone can set up their own network and start connecting up gadgets. Before long you may be similarly free to set up your own network to serve nearby smartphones using the high-speed LTE protocol currently exclusive to cellular networks.

That would allow your home router or a business like Starbucks to offer fast LTE connections to mobile devices. It could create new competition for conventional cellular networks, giving consumers more ways to get high-speed data and pushing down prices. Internet service providers or other companies could build this new version of LTE into cable boxes or other home devices to create their own high-speed mobile data networks.

This new version of LTE is being developed and tested by mobile chip company Qualcomm and is called MuLTEfire. It encodes data in the same way as the LTE technology used by cellular networks today, but is designed to be used over the same part of the radio spectrum as Wi-Fi and has roughly the same range. The company says it can provide faster, less glitchy connections than Wi-Fi because LTE was developed for cellular networks where performance and reliability is more crucial. MuLTEfire opens new possibilities because the radio bands that Wi-Fi uses are not reserved for the exclusive use of any company. LTE is used today only by cellular networks on radio bands licensed from governments at costs of millions or billions of dollars. MuLTEfire is also different in that—as with Wi-Fi—a MuLTEfire hotspot can serve any device, regardless of which cellular carrier it is a subscriber to.

Matt Grob, Qualcomm’s chief technology officer, says his company’s proposal could help satiate people’s still-growing demands for mobile data, and allow alternatives to conventional cellular networks to appear.

Qualcomm’s proposal is a more radical extension of a technology called LTE-U that is just beginning to be tested by the telecom industry. It allows cellular operators but no one else to use LTE in the same bands as Wi-Fi. Grob says MuLTEfire is more useful because a hotspot can serve any person’s device and be set up by companies that don’t own spectrum.

He expects companies such as McDonalds that operate public Wi-Fi networks to install MuLTEfire hotspots to provide their customers faster and more reliable connections. Grob predicts the technology will also be attractive to cable Internet providers and computing companies such as Google and Amazon that have shown an interest in trying to create networks that compete with those of cellular operators.

Last summer, Comcast switched 150,000 cable boxes in Houston into one giant network to offer Internet connectivity to any Comcast customer’s phone or computer. Google recently launched a low-cost cellular plan, called Project Fi, that hops opportunistically between Wi-Fi and the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile (see “Google’s New Wireless Service Should Make Verizon and AT&T Squirm”).

Plans like those would be easier to pull off with MuLTEfire, says Grob. It inherits features from LTE’s cellular heritage that are designed to minimize interference and allow devices to smoothly hop between different base stations. “If your plan is to stick together resources and make a ubiquitous network, you care about performance and need a little more fidelity,” he says.

Phil Marshall, at telecom analyst Tolaga Research, in Newton, Massachusetts, says using MuLTEfire for schemes like that is plausible. It would increase competition for existing cellular network operators and potentially be good for consumers. “You’re creating a means for players to start offering competing services without necessarily having spectrum licenses,” he says.

Marshall predicts that venues such as shopping malls, airports, and stadiums would be likely to install their own MuLTEfire hotspots to improve coverage nearby. Cell networks already put small base stations in such places, but each can only serve customers of one network. If an airport rolled out MuLTEfire hotspots, it could serve anyone—although perhaps only if their cellular provider had paid to get its customers access.

Cell networks could have a lot of gain from deals like that—and from rolling out their own MuLTEfire hotspots, says Marshall. They sometimes have to partner with competitors to provide coverage in places they don’t have much spectrum or infrastructure. Being able to use MuLTEfire could reduce the need for such arrangements.

However, Qualcomm’s proposal still has a ways to go. MuLTEfire will need the stamp of a wireless standards body before Qualcomm or anyone else can start building chips or other hardware to support the technology.

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