After a year of LTE-U battling Wi-Fi for prospective dominance of the 5GHz band, the ‘Multefire’ version of LTE-U was finally released last month. Oddly, the event went largely unnoticed by the tech media – I’m guessing that’s because they’re all busy trying to keep up with the 5G beat these days.
What we know
Public info on Multefire is scarce but here’s what we know: Multefire is a form of LTE unlicensed operating in the 5 GHz (‘Wi-Fi’) band. In contrast to other variants of unlicensed LTE, Multefire doesn’t need to be anchored in a licensed (cellular) band. It also supports LBT (Listen-Before-Talk) which means is should be reasonably friendly to existing Wi-Fi services out there.
No anchor (at least in theory) means that anyone could use it, although frankly, it’s not likely that anyone other than carriers would. Still Multifire is being touted (on the Alliance homepage) as an enterprise & retail solution, too. It’s not clear to me if this means that (non-carrier delivered) enterprise mobility is part of the prospective addressable market for Multefire.
Will Multefire find non-cellular takers?
If that’s the case, Multefire is going to be a hard sell. There really aren’t any non-cellular service providers with spare 4G core networks lying around. The cost of such a core network could run into the many millions of dollars. It also practically a given that the price tag on Multifire radios will be much higher than that of carrier Wi-Fi.
And there are other unknowns, too. The Release 1.0 press release says that Multifire will work for devices ‘without a SIM’ – which begs the question: How exactly will non-SIM devices access the service and what will the user interface look like? I’d be curious to know more.
Multifire is obviously trying to extend the 4G cellular market into ‘Wi-Fi territory’ and extracting a higher price is no doubt an integral part of that plan. But even the carrier business case for Multefire radio could well be shaky.
Small cell deployment numbers have thus far been disappointing, and Multifire is in essence another version of an LTE small cell. It’s also hard to see why mobile carriers wouldn’t simply go for the anchored (LTE-U or LAA) version of the same thing rather than this.
Cablecos could be a credible segment
The only carrier segment that I can see might be a fit for this would be cablecos. And that is of course a pretty big segment. But would cablecos be ready to migrate tens if not hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi APs (many of them in enterprises) to Multefire or begin rolling Multefire out in parallel? That’s a massive investment that would obviously need to be justified. Multefire also would need the capability to deliver many of the same enterprise-friendly features that are today offered by Wi-Fi.
One scenario is that Comcast’s still-to-be-launched MVNO-based mobile service could ‘offload’ mobile traffic to a prospective Comcast Multefire network. Comcast would then save on wholesale LTE capacity delivered by Verizon. But deploying enough Multefire small cells to make a real impact on the bottom line would arguably be a daunting task, even for giant Comcast.
Multefire: It could just be redundant
Introducing a new radio access technology is all well and good, but the Multefire Alliance will – if they want to compete with the broad success of enterprise or home Wi-Fi – need to seed an entire ecosystem to compete with Wi-Fi. And Wi-Fi is at least 10 years of evolution and some billions of devices ahead.
I’ve said it before (and others have as well): LTE-U is a solution looking for a problem. I don’t think anything has really changed on that front with Multefire.