Business interests push for more unlicensed spectrum

A new industry group has unintentionally thrown light on the business interests that underlie debates over U.S. spectrum policy.

The group, calling itself WifiForward, says it will work to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee radios for streaming video, talking to your smartphone, home heating/cooling sensors and a host of other uses.

Its membership consists of cable companies, their equipment suppliers, consumer electronics business groups and retailers, specialized "advocacy" (or lobbying) groups, and technology companies including Microsoft and Google. (A complete list is available on the group's website.) Notable by their absence are other broadband companies, both wireline and wireless carriers such as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, and other network operators.

WifiForward unveiled itself this week, with the self-appointed mission of "working to alleviate the Wi-Fi spectrum crunch and to support making Wi-Fi even better by finding more unlicensed spectrum."

"WifiForward's mission is to educate all of those groups [consumers, policymakers, representatives of non-tech industries, and the media] and draw the connections very clearly between unlicensed spectrum with innovation, investment and job growth," according to a spokeswoman, via email. "We'll do that by being the voice for unlicensed technologies and telling the stories of these technologies in use across all industries."

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"The coalition will not file in proceedings at the Commission, nor lobby members of Congress directly," according to the email.

Both Comcast and Time Warner are members of Wi-FiForward. Both have aggressive Wi-Fi offerings, in part to compete with the wireline and wireless telco carriers. Comcast offers subscribers access to over 500,000 hotspots nationwide, can pay for hourly, daily or weekly Wi-Fi passes. Time Warner offers subscribers free access to over 200,000 hotspots, its own and those of partners. 

But WiFiForward seems to be preaching to the already-converted, as there's little evidence of a debate about the virtues of expanding the unlicensed spectrum. Over a year ago, then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the agency would work quickly to add 195MHz of spectrum for Wi-Fi in the 5GHz band, increasing the available capacity by 35 percent. According to Genachowski, the action is needed because Wi-Fi faces a likely spectrum crunch, analogous to the much-discussed cellular spectrum crunch. Current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reiterated that commitment last month. 

Another spectrum bonanza opened by the FCC, the so-called white spaces of unused TV signals, is already being explored in pilot networks springing up in the U.S. and around the world. A typical example is a recent network deployed at West Virginia University. [See "Better than TV! White spaces bring wireless bonanza to West Virginia"] Wi-Fi clients connect to an access point, which then interfaces with a white spaces radio, in effect piggybacking on the white spaces spectrum. Eventually, radio chips will let clients directly access these bands.

WifiForward says that consumers, among others, are ignorant of or at least don't fully appreciate the importance and value of unlicensed spectrum. Yet in one of its infographics it cites Cisco data (presumably the company's annual Visual Networking Index) to the effect that "by 2017 Wi-Fi devices will power a majority of all Internet traffic." In fact, that actually reveals how keenly aware end users are about the value of Wi-Fi connectivity and data rates.

In briefly covering the WifiForward unveiling, Wall Street Journal reporters Ryan Knutson and Shalini Ramachandran suggest that the massive LTE investments by the telcos now make Wi-Fi networks much less valuable. AT&T and T-Mobile have been aggressive in the past in rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots in part to offload some data traffic from overtaxed 3G networks in urban areas.

But now, the Journal story says, ubiquitous Wi-Fi "could erode carriers' revenue growth" needed to pay for the LTE build-out.

Yet AT&T will be a major player in a large-scale Hotspot 2.0 demonstration network later this month at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Hotspot 2.0 is an industry specification that lets a subscriber of one network connect to Wi-Fi hotspots from other service providers, and be authenticated for secure network access. AT&T, Cisco and Accuris Networks will be working with 10 other network operators in the onsite network. Subscribers with compatible phones will automatically authenticate to the Wi-Fi network when they walk into the venue, as they did with the local cellular network after landing in Spain.

"As far as I know, AT&T hasn't changed their view of Wi-Fi offload," says Ton Brand, senior director of marketing and industry development for the Wireless Broadband Alliance, an industry trade group that's been actively promoting Hotspot 2.0 and what it calls the "Next Generation Hotspot" for public Wi-Fi.  "They're still doing [Hotspot 2.0] roaming agreements and still expanding their [Wi-Fi] footprint." The WBA's AT&T representative is currently chairman of the WBA.

"Users find public Wi-Fi that is sometimes good and sometimes, to be frank, crap," Brand says. The WBA has created a set of guidelines to define a consistent, high quality end-user "carrier Wi-Fi" experience that can be replicated across carrier offerings, and embraced by other standards-setting groups.

"It's not a zero-sum game between cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi connectivity," says Mark Lowenstein, managing director for Mobile Ecosystem, a wireless consulting firm, and editor of the "Lens on Wireless" monthly newsletter.

Both have been advancing in just the last few years, giving mobile carriers new options and new flexibility in handling data demand, he says. While Wi-Fi can be an option for offloading, today better distributed antenna systems (DAS) let carriers extend high capacity 3G and 4G/LTE signals throughout buildings as well as big venues like stadiums, malls, train stations and airports. In hotels and conference venues with older Wi-Fi infrastructures, LTE can actually offer superior performance, according to Lowenstein.

Future versions of LTE will support better integration of Wi-Fi radios in cellular base stations, he says, while Hotspot 2.0 with its attendant roaming agreements among operators will create eventually a more "cellular-like" Wi-Fi experience.

"This will become a very hot and debated issue over the coming months as all these carriers figure out how to rationalize the two technologies," says David Callisch, vice president, corporate marketing for Ruckus Wireless, a WLAN vendor that does a lot of business with network operators deploying Wi-Fi services. "But for the most part, they see them as complementary. Even with the big investments in LTE by the mobile operators, it still won't be enough. Despite the higher data speeds that LTE brings, it won't satisfy the growth in data traffic that is exponential."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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