Urban Legend of Free Wi-Fi For the Masses: Devil In The Details

I just finished a long chat with one of my longtime Intel colleagues in Oregon.  I have the great good fortune to be recognized as an “Intel alumni,”  which allows me to simply pick up the phone to update myself with a free private seminar on pretty much any high tech market topic.  I promise not to bore readers with tedious technical issues, but anyone interested in the emergence and development of the multi-Billion dollar smart mobile market may find this very enlightening.

My friend led the Intel WiMax effort until it more or less morphed into the current 4G LTE mobile data standard.  Aside from catching up on a bunch of “what’s he doing now?” topics, our deep technical conversation was about the potential for so-called White Space WiFi  and all the many big corporate players in the mix in addition to Intel:  Microsoft, Google, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and the rest of the mobile telecommunications companies.  What I learned from my wireless engineering guru, required that I brush off a lot of what I learned years ago at Mobile Data International about radio spectrum, bandwidth, radio signal propagation, transmit/receive power and contention, data signal computational requirements on both ends, and finally, current U.S. Federal Communications Commission politics.

Needless to say, the situation is a giant complex hairball.

I began my educational odyssey because of a flurry of stories that appeared this week on an alleged imminent FCC action to authorize use of unlicensed radio spectrum for free metropolitan scale WiFi.  All of the hoopla this week has culminated in a story on the National Public Radio blog in the United States, which at least clarifies the political dimension, if not the technical engineering dimension of this emerging urban legend, “Viral Story About Free WiFi Spotlights Hidden Policy War.”  In the NPR blog post, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is quoted referring to a “balanced policy,” but also a nascent “War on WiFi”  between the mobile telecommunications carriers on one side, and Intel, Microsoft and Google on the other side.. The blog post also points to predictable Democrat and Republican differences on FCC radio spectrum policy related to “free unlicensed spectrum” for WiFi. The Republicans are seeking to protect mobile telecom carriers “revenue streams,” while the Democrats want to see a ubiquitous free, or at least very cheap Internet.  The leading Internet broadband countries in the World, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, have made it a governmental policy priority and have borne a significant share of the cost. One could argue that Samsung has benefited immensely from South Korean government Internet policy.  The United States is nowhere near that kind of commitment, and to make matters worse, the carriers are not currently interested in additional capital expenditure to expand bandwidth to an Asian standard.  I have had a fair amount of experience with the telecommunications carrier mentality, going back to my DSL days, and I would have to say that the carriers are content with the bandwidth we have, and are more interested in extracting greater revenue from us.

Translation:  No political movement happening anytime soon. But that is only half the story. There are are also very complex technical issues that are unresolved.

Read more: http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/02/05/171183700/viral-story-about-free-wifi-spotlights-mostly-hidden-policy-war

genachowskiFCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski

I first became aware of the potential for White Space WiFi in a  November 2011 Economist article in the Science and Technology section, “White Space Puts WiFi On Steroids.”  The article painted a picture of massive longer range, greater bandwidth WiFi networks being just around the corner. The new equipment was already being manufactured and deployment would surely be before 2015.  Looking back now, the author of the Economist article was probably not a wireless engineering expert or well-versed on FCC politics.

Read more: http://www.economist.com/node/21536999 

Stories on the potential for White Space WiFi, and even an imminent FCC vote on it,  can be found going back at least as far as 2008.  Needless to say nothing happened, and I needed to understand why.

At the 50,000 foot level, the technical potential seemed common sense and simple.  The Economist put it this way:

“White-space” is technical slang for television channels that were left vacant in one city so as not to interfere with TV stations broadcasting on adjacent channels in a neighbouring city…With the recent switch from analogue to digital tele­vision, much of this protective white-space is no longer needed. Unlike analogue broadcasting, digital signals do not “bleed” into one another—and can therefore be packed closer together. All told, the television networks now require little more than half the frequency spectrum they sprawled across previously.”

Voila!  We can put up maybe one or two big towers, crank up the transmit power and put the mobile carriers out of business in major metropolitan areas. We could dump our mobile contracts or at least downgrade them, browse the Internet, text message, and use Skype to make our calls, all without a mobile signal.  I think you can see where I am going with this.

There are numerous technical problems with this vision, as well as cost issues.   First, an entirely new IEEE spec would be required.  The current IEEE 802.11 specification for WiFi is local area only.  The transmit wattage is so low that the range is spec’d at 100 meters, and the current “handshake” process between the client and the base would not work in a metro scale WiFi scenario.  Current so-called metro WiFi deployments use a variety of incompatible proprietary mesh network architectures that do not scale well to true wide area deployment.  Bottom line: there is no wide area WiFi de facto or IEEE standard everyone agrees on = A Tower of Babel.

Second, while mobile devices would be able to “hear” the base from much longer distances, how would the mobile device transmit back to tower?  Current mobile transmit wattage is minuscule, and uses relatively little battery capacity because both WiFi and cellular telecom architectures do not require high wattage from the mobile device. Transmitting from the mobile to a base much further away, perhaps miles, would eat up battery capacity in a hurry. Some kind of hybrid solution that would allow mobile “upstream” transmission to a cellular tower or nearby WiFi hotspot might work, but presents additional complex technical, competitive and political issues.

Finally, there is the issue of cost.  While we are all unhappy with the current cost of our mobile service and data plans, the cost of providing high bandwidth wireless data and carrier-scale Gigabyte fiber backhaul to the Cloud is not cheap.  I heard actual cost numbers this morning that surprised me.  Some way would need to be found to dramatically reduce the cost of mega bandwidth long range WiFi.   I also learned that LTE (long term evolution) may yet be the key to future.

So, as stated above, this is still an urban legend, unlikely to become reality anytime soon….but hey, stay tuned. Anything could happen.