What is License-Assisted Access (LAA)?

Although 5G wireless coverage is widely available across many parts of the U.S., plenty of users may still encounter spotty service. LTE will remain the backbone of U.S. carrier networks for the next few years because it has been proven to be a stable and reliable wireless solution. And while we’ll continue to use LTE to fill in the gaps for now, carriers are working to improve their networks to provide better connectivity and speeds for all users.

Today’s best Android phones still benefit from LTE with a handy feature called License Assisted Access (LAA). Here’s a quick rundown of what LAA is, why it’s a game changer for LTE-based networks, and how it works during everyday use.

What is LAA in the wireless networking space?

License Assisted Access (LAA) was initially introduced in the 4G LTE (long-term evolution) wireless networking days. Known as LTE-LAA, it’s the precursor to getting us into proper 5G territory. The idea was to leverage the unlicensed wireless 5 GHz band with the commercially available spectrum, which would enhance the capabilities of LTE.

This unique combination allows LTE to theoretically reach peak speeds of 1Gbps and beyond, also known as a gigabit network. Since LTE wireless coverage has already been well-established today, this boost to data transfer rates would help propel it into the next generation.

How does LTE-LAA work?

Dual-band wireless routers support 2.4 GHz and 5GHz bands, but LTE-LAA can affect the latter if there’s too much congestion on the network. Part of LTE-LAA operates within the unlicensed 5 GHz band, meaning the available channels can cross with our home Wi-Fi networks. A channel is a smaller band of frequencies where the data over Wi-Fi is sent and received.

The 5 GHz band has 45 usable channels, but many devices only have access to 25 channels. Since it’s not ideal for LTE-LAA to compete over available Wi-Fi channels in the local networking space, a new technique must be introduced to ensure device synchronicity.

Listen-before-talk (LBT) allows LTE-LAA to avoid this Wi-Fi channel crossover by enabling dynamic channel selection within the 5 GHz band. That means LTE-LAA works continuously without interruption because it automatically skips the currently populated channels. However, it uses an occupied channel as a fallback solution if no channels are available. When this occurs, the channel space is divided evenly with the other Wi-Fi devices, preventing a complete overlap of the two. Since the 5 GHz band has 25 available channels, this incident may not occur or affect the average home Wi-Fi network.

What makes LTE-LAA unique?

The magic of LAA technology comes into play when you’re in a heavily congested public area, such as an airport or a shopping center. Combining the licensed wireless spectrum we use and the unlicensed 5Ghz band with LBT boosts your LTE data speeds. These rates can theoretically peak over 1Gbps in the best-case scenarios. This means your LTE experience indoors will be better, which has always been challenging for wireless carriers to tackle. And the combination of these features and frequencies works in your favor whether you use Wi-Fi or LTE.

Which U.S. wireless carriers plan to support LTE-LAA?

In June 2017, T-Mobile completed the first live commercial test for LTE-LAA. In February 2018, T-Mobile and Nokia set a new LTE speed record of 1.3 Gbps, putting it higher than sub-6GHz 5G speeds. In September 2018, Verizon set its own record by reaching speeds of 1.4 Gbps over LTE by utilizing LAA technology. AT&T also supports LAA for their wireless network, where they are comfortably reaching 750+ Mbps over LTE. T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T started the initial deployment of LTE-LAA on their networks from 2017 to 2018. Expansion continues today, with more markets being added.

What current 5G technologies do we use today?

The common wireless 5G networks today tap into what is known as sub-6 GHz, any frequencies below 6 GHz. Sub-6GHz gives solid wireless coverage and speeds slightly higher than LTE, which isn’t a true generational leap. On the flip side, mmWave 5G technology provides those blazing fast gigabit speeds we crave, but at the cost of lower range capabilities in many cases.

That’s where the third option comes into play to balance the playing field: C-Band 5G. It gives the best of both worlds with speed and coverage, allowing for a better 5G experience overall on the best 5G phones.

How can LAA enhance our 5G networks?

LAA was initially built with LTE in mind, but the same technology will eventually become part of our 5G networks. Tapping into the licensed wireless spectrum and unlicensed Wi-Fi frequencies remains the same strategy. LAA for 5G will have a broader range of frequency options than its earlier LTE counterpart. From 5925 to 7150 GHz, these frequencies allow 5G networks using LAA to push higher data speeds. The technology may eventually gain support for high frequencies between 52 GHz to 71 GHz. This would put it in the high-band frequency spectrum, where mmWave 5G currently operates.

To understand why LAA will be a huge step forward for 5G, we must first mention the current 5G technologies on today’s wireless networks. So what does this mean in the broader sense of things for our networking experience? LAA will eventually be integrated to work with our current 5G wireless networks using sub-6GHz and mmWave. Since sub-6GHz speeds aren’t much higher than LTE, LAA will significantly boost performance. With the wireless range and cost of mmWave not being ideal, LAA would also allow for better coverage both inside buildings and outside in the open.

When can we expect LAA for our current 5G networks?

Regarding exactly when we’ll see LAA feature deployment for our current 5G wireless networks, this is something we have yet to learn. Just like C-Band 5G, we’re still in the middle of deploying LTE-LAA today. The process can take years to achieve on such a massive scale. The primary focus here would be to utilize LTE-LAA to bridge the wireless gap until 5G networks are good enough to take over. We could potentially see LAA using C-Band technology sooner rather than later to create a supercharged 5G experience, but that’s more of a future goal.

LAA can help us achieve a better 4G and 5G wireless experience

As 5G networks continue to improve yearly, we are inching closer to 5G finally becoming the new wireless standard and taking over 4G LTE entirely. But 5G’s technical ambitions are high, and the effort required to get there is even higher. Between sub-6GHz and mmWave, we have yet to find a perfect 5G solution. However, C-Band is the next step toward completing this goal, where future expansion will likely be slow but steady. In the meantime, we look forward to using LTE-LAA to push the 4G LTE speed capabilities beyond the average 5G networks today.

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