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Alcatel's tech binds Wi-Fi, LTE together for crazy high speeds

The company's "Unified Wireless Networks" concept promises to more than double your download speeds, boost your upload speed by 55 times and double the Wi-Fi range.

Alcatel-Lucent's booth from Mobile World Congress 2014. The company is back with bigger news this year. Sarah Tew/CNET

BARCELONA -- To network-equipment provider Alcatel-Lucent, Wi-Fi and LTE can be BFFs.

The two wireless technologies haven't always gotten along with each other. Wi-Fi has an open architecture using unlicensed spectrum, so just about anyone can set up a hotspot with limited range. LTE has its roots in cellular technology, which means closed networks, run by the major telecom carriers, that span the country.

Enter Alcatel-Lucent and its "Wireless Unified Networks" concept, unveiled here at the Mobile World Congress trade show on Monday. Its technology blends Wi-Fi and cellular coverage, taking advantage of their different characteristics to increase the download speed by 2.5 times, increase the upload speed by 55 times and double the Wi-Fi range in a home or office.

With people consuming more bandwidth through video games, higher resolution video and just the proliferation of devices that require an Internet connection, the telecommunications industry has had to rethink how their networks need to be built to meet the insatiable demand. Alcatel-Lucent is just the latest company to explore the use of unconventional methods to boost capacity and speeds, looking at two wireless technologies that didn't naturally fit together.

"From a consumer perspective, they really don't care," said Alcatel-Lucent Chief Technology Officer Michael Peeters in an interview. "The user just wants it to work."

On the cellular side, there are physical limits on how much traffic can be carried and at what speeds data can travel. Carriers require more spectrum to boost capacity for additional data use, and spectrum is a scarce commodity, as evidenced by the Federal Communication Commission's auction of US spectrum, which generated $45 billion.

While Wi-Fi is better for downloading large amounts of data, its upload speeds lag far behind. LTE, meanwhile, has stronger upload speeds, even if downloading large amounts of data takes a toll on the network.

By combining the two technologies, Alcatel-Lucent can hide their problems and combine their advantages through two capabilities: Wi-Fi boost, which uses cellular networks to boost performance, and cellular boost, which enhances its performance through the kind of unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi.

"It's recognizing where the weakness lies," Peeters said. "For the end user, it's the perfect situation."

Alcatel-Lucent's technology doesn't require any new equipment, only a software update to existing mobile devices capable of both cellular and Wi-Fi transmission and "simple updates" in the network to couple Wi-Fi and LTE together.

The company said the Wireless Unified Networks capability would be commercially available in the second half, though deployment will depend on whether the carriers sign up for the feature.

A second phase in the works includes LTE-U, or the use of high-speed LTE cellular technology running over the same kind of unlicensed spectrum that Wi-Fi employs. The company claims it can triple the speeds over just using LTE by itself.