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Qualcomm Teases a Prototype Spectrum Sharing Radio

A prototype radio is using new technology to gain access to large swathes of wireless spectrum not being used to their full potential. Built by Qualcomm, it is the latest attempt to communize the wireless spectrum used by billions of smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

On Monday, the company teased the new radio, which has been built to flip between licensed and unlicensed spectrum using a technique known as spectrum sharing. With it, the radio listens into different frequency bands, finds the fastest ones, and allows smartphones and other devices to pluck signals from them.

Efficiently sharing spectrum could help address the explosive demand for mobile data spurred by new technologies like virtual reality and sensor networks in factories. In the view of Qualcomm executives, it could also form a central part of the next generation of wireless technology, also known as 5G.

The 5G New Radio, as the prototype is called, searches up and down the wireless spectrum for potential openings. The radio can broadcast on frequency bands below 6 GHz, where most of today’s devices send communications, and then leap into higher bands in the millimeter-wave range.

The concept of sharing spectrum faces uncertain regulatory hurdles, though. Wireless carriers pay billions for exclusive rights to thin slices of radio spectrum, and many might not want to surrender those rights. The government, for its part, will likely have to keep a database of different spectrum bands, a kind of traffic report, that devices will review before picking a channel. The database would also keep track of which bands are off-limits or used by the military.

One of the biggest concerns, however, is that sharing spectrum might cause interference. Qualcomm has endorsed an array of controversial technologies that break from their prescribed frequency bands to increase download speeds. A technology known as LTE in the unlicensed spectrum, or LTE-U, has been at the epicenter of the controversy, accused for barnstorming the same spectrum used by Wi-Fi and interfering with its signals.

There have been attempts at compromise. Many companies have agreed to conduct tests that could shed light on what the industry has dubbed a “peaceful coexistence.” But Qualcomm has argued that the compromises are inherently biased against LTE-U, and that the technology is being asked to provide unnecessary protections for Wi-Fi that it won’t reciprocate.

Qualcomm says that it has installed fail-safes, including what is known as listen-before-talk technology. Like knocking before opening a bathroom door, it checks Wi-Fi channels for traffic before allowing smartphones to send messages or stream video over the same spectrum. Qualcomm’s prototype is said to have the same technology.

The prototype is based on the sub-GHz and millimeter-wave radios that Qualcomm unveiled earlier this year. It will be used for technology development in 2017, Qualcomm said in a statement. It will start field trials after that, though the company didn’t specify when.

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