When Kiely Cronin visits San Francisco, his cell phone drops his calls…on a good day. On a bad day, however, his device doesn’t work at all. “If I’m in a large crowd, I can’t even place a phone call.”
Ask anyone who has used four-letter words to describe his cell phone access: There is no invisible blanket that drapes the country in wireless connectivity.
Peter Stanforth, CTO of Spectrum Bridge, which provides database-driven solutions for spectrum use and allocation, says, “One of the things you’ll hear constantly is that we have a spectrum crunch in this country, and there’s a desperate need for more spectrum.”
It’s true that at the moment there’s only so much spectrum available at any given time, particularly in urban areas. Wi-fi sits on the 2.4 GHz band of spectrum, a thin sliver of limited bandwidth. And it’s getting very crowded in there. That negatively impacts cell phone connectivity, as well as data transfer.
But this spectrum crunch is about to become a spectrum explosion. You and your enterprise will soon have access to the next generation in mobile communications, not Wi-Fi, but Super Wi-Fi.
Sounds impressive? That’s because it is.
In brief, Super Wi-Fi is “Wi-Fi 2.0,” an evolution of the Wi-Fi standard (super Wi-Fi has the designation 802.11AF). And like Wi-Fi, it is unlicensed, which means it will allow enterprises to create ad hoc networks at will.
But it’s the fact that it uses “white space” that makes super Wi-Fi so interesting.
Back in 1952, when allocating spectrum for television, the FCC left an extremely conservative amount of space between the channels for two reasons: the first to prevent interference from inefficient television transmitters and their unsophisticated receivers, which is known as "spacing," and the second as a standard interference buffer, known as a "guard band." These unused and unallocated parts of this spectrum, which exists in the 50-to-700 MHz range, is white space. What about the remaining 700 to 800 MHz frequencies, you may wonder? The FCC auctioned them off in 2008.
Stanforth says, “The reality is that most spectrum today is white space. Depending on where you look and how you measure it, anywhere from 80% to 90% of the spectrum is not used at any given time.” Super Wi-fi takes advantage of this white space spectrum.
To look at it another way, new broadcast technologies — CDMA, GSM, Wi-Fi (as well as WiMax and LTE) — previously had to come up with inventive ways to use small slivers of spectrum. Almost by definition, these scraps were less-than-optimal for broadcast. So Super Wi-Fi isn’t just more spectrum…it’s the best spectrum.
Super Wi-Fi transmissions travel at greater distances, which means it can provide anywhere from three to five times the coverage of Wi-Fi. It also easily penetrates buildings. In other words, super Wi-Fi is more effective and efficient than standard Wi-Fi. And when it’s implemented in your enterprise, or eventually your personal devices, it should solve the Wi-Fi congestion problem.
If that’s not super enough, it also provides a wealth of opportunities for mobile enterprise communications. Here are a few:
- Have a large campus across multiple buildings? You can support it with super Wi-Fi and a few antennae, as opposed to running network cables between all your hotspots on every floor.
- Have a cavernous, steel-reinforced building with little or no Wi-Fi penetration? Farewell, deadzones. (And doctors, say “Goodbye and good riddance” to your dedicated deadzone-proof pagers.)
- There are other medical applications too: Spectrum Bridge conducted a trial in which they deployed a white spaces network for Hocking County Emergency Medical Services. This network allows emergency vehicles to wirelessly transfer data directly from EMS vehicles located as they approach the hospital campus, to on-site EMS data systems. This saves time, when time is at its most critical.
- A paper produced by a public policy non-profit, New America Foundation, Good Enough for the Pentagon, described TV white space spectrum as a perfect opportunity…for new television stations.
Author Benjamin Lennett wrote, “[T]he same technology should be capable of co-existing with commercial broadcasters in the television band. In fact, by comparison, the TV white space environment is a much less challenging environment since the waveforms are well known, are fixed location, documented openly…and have precise timing and frequency stability.”
Wireless providers such as Sprint can save money with Super Wi-Fi in two ways. First, because it uses less power to transmit a signal, broadcasting on the white spaces spectrum is less expensive than broadband. Second, it makes backhaul—the part of the network that connects the core to the user—cheaper.
Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, says, “We don’t have enough backhaul capacity, particularly for companies that aren’t AT&T or Verizon. They have a lot of fiber in a lot of areas that already connect to these towers, so they get to use that. Other companies like T-Mobile and Sprint have to lease backhaul from their chief rivals, AT&T and Verizon. That drives up their cost and makes it harder for them to do.”
With whitespaces technology, says Feld, they will now be in a position to take the whitespace devices and be able to communicate to backhaul facilities a couple of miles away. And because it’s cheaper than fiber, enterprises looking to connect to and in rural areas may finally find it cost-effective.
Another useful aspect of Super Wi-Fi is its ability to send a signal where no signal has gone before. Cronin, the aforementioned frustrated cell phone user, happens to be a sales technician for Carlson Wireless, which provides base stations and fixed network equipment for portable devices. Cronin says, “You don’t necessarily need to put this on a radio tower. Because of [Super Wi-Fi’s] non-line-of-sight characteristics, it’ll be more functional on top of a building or water tower or even a tree.”
For communities with more trees than cell towers, super Wi-Fi will help rural broadband networks connect people who have never had wireless service before (including Leticia Aguirre, who became the proud recipient of the first residential Super Wi-Fi hotspot, thanks to Rice University, along with the non-profit Technology for All in mid April 2011.)
And large enterprises like Google and Motorola are working on the development and deployment of Super Wi-Fi solutions, perhaps because they recognize that a previously under-served community is also an untapped market.
So how can you jump on this broadband-wagon right now?
Right now, Super Wi-Fi is looking like the way of the future — but not the present. Those who have been watching this space have wondered why their “Wi-Fi on steroids” has been drug-free. After all, it looked as if the FCC had approved the use of devices that communicate in the white space spectrum back in 2008.
In actuality, they didn’t. “What they did was approve the concept,” says Feld. “But they didn’t approve the final settled rule until 2010.”
According to Feld, “The FCC did not approve final rules for the service until September 2010, and didn’t finalize who were going to be the database managers, which was the last key component, until January 2011.”
These industry-established database managers formed the FCC-approved White Spaces Database Administrators Group. This group is working to create a database that will enable super Wi-Fi nodes to know what spectrum in their local area is available for them to use. Because different areas have different channels in use, the unused spectrum varies depending on location.
This is especially interesting because it means the spectrum available to Super Wi-Fi equipment can be automatically updated as new spectrum becomes available or as existing spectrum is re-allocated to other purposes.
But it’s hard not to get excited about super Wi-Fi, which should be obtainable for enterprise in 12 to 16 months. After all, it’s a lot like regular Wi-Fi, only better, faster, and cheaper. And it needn’t replace Wi-Fi entirely, as routers might also be equipped with multiple chip sets that are both super and standard Wi-Fi capable.
Lest we sound like cheerleaders for a piece of tech we haven’t field-tested, we should mention we’re aware of potential flaws.
Carl Ford, cofounder of Crossfire Media and producer of the upcoming Super Wi-Fi Summit, is quick to point out two of them:
The first issue that concerns Ford is the legal height of Super Wi-Fi antennae, which have current height restrictions of 100 feet. (While Super Wi-Fi is superior to Wi-Fi in an obstructed environment, its proponents would still like a line-of-sight advantage.) According to Ford, “We consider 100 feet kind of limiting. That’s being navigated and should be solved with the FCC soon.”
The second problem is a little more pressing. White space is actually so impressive that Ford and his colleagues fear that Congress might want to auction off more of it.
“I can understand the logic of wanting to do this,” Ford says. “But the reality is that a product-oriented competitive environment such as being designed in Super Wi-Fi right now should probably be encouraged in this marketplace. More and more devices…are smart and are capable of managing themselves. So if we can keep it so that it’s more Wi-Fi-like and less service provider-like, [enterprises and consumers] will benefit from the innovation.”
Last, another potential problem is that the existing unlicensed devices, like wireless microphones, have traditionally occupied the same bandwidth as Super Wi-Fi. The potential interference with these low-power devices can be deleterious, particularly when you attend your favorite concert.
In the end, Super Wi-Fi’s use might not seem like a very dramatic evolution, especially for those who remember an office full wires, before smartphones and mobile devices disentangled us.
However, its potential to usher in a new wave of digital communication is still massive, even if those ways might not be noticeable to the end user. We may not understand that our wireless communications are now being ferried across wireless backhaul networks instead of cables, but we will notice the new competitors in the wireless markets.
With the demand for spectrum growing, there is no doubt that innovators and enterprise users will find unexpected uses for this new technology. Eventually Super Wi-Fi will soon become cheap enough to inspire innovation at every level. We fully expect our car’s entertainment computer to sync with our houses three years from now.
Not too farther in that future, if Super Wi-Fi nodes become dense enough, a natural mesh network may evolve, allowing urban connectivity independent of any dedicated service provider.
Ten years ago, innovators dreamed of covering cities with Wi-Fi clouds and freeing consumers from expensive cell phone contracts. But American cellphone providers adamantly prohibited manufacturers from including Wi-Fi chips in phones, in order to force customers to use network minutes. Today, every smartphone has a Wi-Fi chip, and while cities never built giant Wi-Fi clouds, AT&T is building hot spots to take the load off its networks.
No one predicted the marriage of Wi-Fi and cellphones in today’s smartphones. Odds are good that no one can predict how Super Wi-Fi will mix with today’s wireless technology. But even if the most optimistic predictions fall short, Super Wi-Fi has a bright future for enterprise solutions.