In a development hailed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai as “a significant advance in wireless innovation and a big win for wireless consumers,” the FCC’s Office of Engineering & Technology (OET) approved on Wednesday the first wireless LTEU devices that will operate in unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band.

Until Wednesday, the 5 GHz band had been set aside for unlicensed Wi-Fi operations. According to Pai, the OET’s decision will enable commercial wireless carriers “to deliver mobile traffic using unlicensed spectrum while sharing the road, so to speak, with Wi-Fi.” The result, proclaimed Pai in a press statement, is that wireless consumers will “get to enjoy the best of both worlds: a more robust, seamless experience when their devices are using cellular networks and the continued enjoyment of Wi-Fi, one of the most creative uses of spectrum in history.”

Wednesday’s decision will also enable mobile phone service providers that offer LTE-U devices to their customers to offload traffic onto unlicensed Wi-Fi networks, thereby preserving LTE network capacity. Although Wi-Fi advocates had voiced concern that LTE-U technology could interfere with unlicensed wireless devices, OET Chief Julius Knapp told reporters that the LTE-U devices certified by his office “have been tested to show that they meet all of the FCC’s rules.” Knapp further noted that the approved devices had been evaluated successfully under a voluntary co-existence and testing plan that was developed and released last September by the Wi-Fi Alliance in cooperation with the wireless industry.

LTE-U devices approved by the OET were developed by Nokia Corp. and Ericsson, Inc. Officials of T-Mobile US and Verizon also affirmed that their companies will begin marketing the devices to their customers this spring. Welcoming the FCC’s decision, Tom Sawanobori, an executive of wireless association CTIA, applauded the agency “for opening the door to innovative LTE services in the unlicensed band and for recognizing the comprehensive and collaborative efforts of the wireless industry and Wi-Fi community.” As a Verizon spokesman predicted that LTE-U “will enable our customers to benefit from more data at faster speeds where they work, live and play,” Wi-Fi Alliance vice president Kevin Robinson emphasized: “now, it is critical that stakeholders continue to follow through on their commitments by ensuring equipment deployments operate as tested to ensure LTE-U services coexist fairly in the real world.”