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Whither Wi-Fi?

With the number of Internet connected “things” projected to balloon to well over 20 billion devices by 2020, wireless spectrum—the range of frequencies that allow data, audio, and video to be transmitted by Wi-Fi routers, GPS devices, smartphones, and mobile devices— is a hot topic of conversation as demand for wireless hardware rises.

Historically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has managed spectrum in a siloed way: specific technologies were assigned to use specific spectrum frequencies on an exclusive basis. But in an age of ever-growing innovation this path is not sustainable. New technologies must find ways to share spectrum. Wi-Fi, arguably one of the most successful and influential wireless technologies, is based on a shared approach to spectrum. Its success has led the Obama administration to highlight the creation of new shared bands of spectrum as a key aspect of its policy agenda.

“Wi-Fi has become the workhorse of broadband connectivity,” noted Michael Calabrese at an event hosted by New America’s Open Technology Institute and the Microsoft Policy Innovation Center last month. Calabrese—who leads the Open Technology Institute’s Wireless Future Project—was joined by lawyer and counsel to the National Cable & Television Association Paul Caritj, Alex Phillips of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), Google engineer Andrew Clegg, Microsoft policy strategist Michael Daum, and Wi-Fi Alliance representative Russell Fox for a conversation about the future of wireless spectrum and the importance of preserving public Wi-Fi networks. 

Much of their discussion centered on a petition from one company, Globalstar, to the FCC. Globalstar wants to open its satellite spectrum—which operates at a frequency higher than the spectrum currently used for Wi-Fi—for use as an additional Wi-Fi channel.

“This is an important issue because if you have a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or gaming console, then you’ve got Wi-Fi,” Fox explained. “Today’s market is huge, but tomorrow’s is even bigger.” In addition to meeting consumer demand for faster Wi-Fi-capable technology, adding spectrum would support the still-rebounding economy. As Zach Christensen of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research points out in Forbes, experts predict that expanded Wi-Fi capacity would boost employment and GDP, so “getting more spectrum online would be a huge economic benefit for consumers.”

Currently, the bulk of Wi-Fi-enabled devices operate at a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) on one of three separate channels: Channel 1, Channel 6, or Channel 11. If approved, Globalstar’s petition would expand those options to include an additional channel (known as Channel 14) that would create an additional lane for Wi-Fi traffic at the top of the 2.4 GHz frequency band, a move that Globalstar argues would allow for a faster wireless experience due to less traffic within the channels.

The FCC seemed to be receptive to the proposal in 2013, issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking—a move that indicates that the commission is open to changing current rules about a subject—stipulating that if Globalstar could prove that its plan to use higher frequencies for a new Wi-Fi channel worked, the FCC would allow them to operate the space exclusively as a licensed network. The commission also tentatively supported giving Globalstar the ability to regulate the use of the adjacent band of unlicensed Wi-Fi for use as a “guardband”—a means of ensuring that Wi-Fi signals from Channel 11 do not interfere with the quality of Channel 14. It is this aspect of Globalstar’s proposal that has drawn criticism over the last few years from a coalition of tech companies, policy groups, and advocates for accessible spectrum.

“I think that our fundamental objection is that Globalstar’s premise in proposing its deal to the commission is that it would relieve congestion by creating another avenue for Wi-Fi traffic, and in fact, it would do just the opposite,” noted Fox, whose Wi-Fi Alliance has expressed hesitation about Globalstar’s petition. “There is no evidence that Globalstar’s channel will be interoperable [capable of exchanging information] with other networks—this would become an effectively private Wi-Fi network.”

Fox was not alone in his criticism: the panel expressed unanimous skepticism about the petition, which still remains before the FCC nearly two years after the commission announced its proposed rulemaking notice.

Clegg offered a more general breakdown of why he believes that a ruling by the FCC in favor of Globalstar “could have tremendous public policy implications,” likening Globalstar’s plans to use public Wi-Fi as a guard for its private network to a homeowner using public property to protect his home. 

Concerns about the implications of creating a private network out of public Wi-Fi have placed the proposal under a pretty close microscope, but criticism of the plan has not stopped there. Advocates for spectrum-sharing technologies object that Globalstar’s proposal will undermine their efforts. Opponents argue that the results of tests run by Globalstar and the FCC earlier this year serve as proof that—despite the hype—Globalstar’s proposed Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) model has failed to show that it would help relieve congestion in the 2.4 GHz band. "We don't see anything here that shows how [Channel 14] is going to help,” Phillips said. “We just have a lot of concern about this.”

Some of the panelists contended that Channel 14 would interfere with traffic on other Wi-Fi channels or with Bluetooth devices that use frequencies at the top of the band in order to operate. “If Globalstar interferes with Channel 11, then it will substantially decrease the capacity of Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz band,” Caritj noted.

“If you’re [using Wi-Fi] in a suburban home with lots of space, then you’ll be fine,” Daum added. “But if you’re in an urban area where there is a lot of activity, the concern is: how does Channel 14 impact your experience—because there are not a lot of channels to choose from.”

Globalstar has not taken the criticism lightly, issuing a statement noting that Microsoft’s makeover of its Wi-Fi service and Google’s recently-announced Project-Fi indicate that “these large players aren't supporting Globalstar’s entry into a marketplace which they dominate.” The panelists, however, disagreed with that type of assessment. “Our concern is that Globalstar do no harm,” Caritj explained. “If [this proposal] moves ahead with more responsible and scientific testing, I don’t think that there are a lot of people that would be opposed.”


P.R. Lockhart