Feature Article

April 15, 2014

Gigabit Wi-Fi Should Get a Boost as FCC Opens Up Unlicensed Spectrum

Wi-Fi equipment capable of supporting speeds of a gigabit per second should get a boost from the FCC’s recent decision to open up 100 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz band for unlicensed use. And the impact could be felt sooner than readers might expect.

An IEEE standard for Wi-Fi supporting speeds up to 1.3 Gbps, known as the 802.11 ac standard, already has been established and a few products supporting it are already on the market and have seen limited deployments. This was possible because a portion of the 5 GHz band has been available for unlicensed use for years.

The downside of using only that portion of the band is that equipment supporting earlier Wi-Fi standards also operates there and can negatively impact the functionality of 802.11ac.

One of the first enterprises to deploy 802.11ac was TechPad, a technology incubator based in Blacksburg, Virg. Shortly after that network was turned up last fall, TechPad’s director told me TechPad had been asking operators of previous generation Wi-Fi access points in the immediate vicinity to turn them off to minimize noise and instead to use the TechPad network, which is backwards-compatible with the earlier-generation equipment.

TechPad is making its network available at no charge so that’s a reasonable request. But not everyone deploying 802.11ac will take that approach.

By opening up additional unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band, the FCC’s recent move should eliminate the need to do what TechPad had to do and should help 802.11ac equipment reach its full potential.

A last mile solution?

One company with big plans for 802.11ac is RST Global, a competitive carrier that aims to provide high-speed broadband throughout North Carolina, including rural areas that currently lack high-speed broadband because their remote locations and sparse populations make them too costly to serve. The company originally planned to use fiber-to-the-home but changed direction after getting positive results using 802.11ac equipment for the final link to the customer in field trials.

RST Global’s CEO told me last month that that equipment supporting the 802.11ac standard can work over distances as great as 3,000 meters, which means the company shouldn’t have to take fiber all the way to the customer premises but instead can rely on Wi-Fi for the final leg. If RST Global’s vision is correct, potentially the company’s business model also could work in rural areas of other states, helping to bridge the broadband availability gap between rural and urban areas, also known as the Digital Divide.

The news about the 5 GHz band also should be good news to wireless network operators who are expected to shift more and more of their mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi to minimize congestion in increasingly crowded licensed spectrum bands. An 802.11ac fact sheet issued by the FCC cites Cisco data showing that 45 percent of mobile data traffic was offloaded onto fixed networks via Wi-Fi in 2013 – a number that is forecast to rise to more than half (51 percent) by 2018.

The fact sheet also cites data from Wi-Fi Forward which estimates that unlicensed spectrum generated $222 billion in value to the U.S. economy in 2013 and contributed $6.7 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product. Hopefully we will see that number climb as a result of the FCC’s action and the advent of 802.11ac.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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