Despite LTE hype, Wi-Fi is the real deal

With all the hype surrounding 4G technologies such as LTE and WiMAX, it’s easy to forget just how useful Wi-Fi is now

MIAMI -- With all the hype surrounding 4G technologies such as LTE and WiMAX, it's easy to forget just how useful Wi-Fi is in our daily lives.

And as many at this week's ITEXPO in Miami reminded us, that utility isn't going away anytime soon. Whether we're talking about evolutions to current 802.11 Wi-Fi standards on the 2.4GHz, 3.6GHz and 5GHz spectrum bands or new technologies developed for the recently vacated TV "white spaces" channels, Wi-Fi is going to play a major role in the future of wireless data services.

RULING: FCC takes 'free love' approach to white spaces spectrum

Let's start with the biggest reason Wi-Fi and other technologies that utilize unlicensed spectrum are here to stay: Carriers love them. At first glance this may seem counterintuitive since carriers spend so much time and money securing licenses for major chunks of spectrum they can use for their next-generation mobile broadband networks.

But according to Bob Friday, the director of strategic initiatives and business development for Cisco, carriers are going to increasingly rely on Wi-Fi and similar unlicensed-spectrum technologies to offload the explosion in data traffic that's coming to their proprietary wireless networks. Research released by Cisco in 2009 projected mobile data traffic volume to double every year between 2009 and 2013, while a survey released late last year by Telesperience showed that two-thirds of wireless carriers said that their networks were struggling to keep up with surges in data traffic.

"Carriers have started to find religion on unlicensed spectrum," Friday said. "A lot of that is because of the pain caused by data traffic on their licensed spectrum networks."

Another reason Wi-Fi will remain important is because of its unique ability to provide consistent wireless indoor coverage. So while LTE and WiMAX are obviously better at giving users coverage that includes seamless handoffs over wide areas, they aren't quite so good at penetrating every nook and corner of office buildings. For this, noted Xirrus CMO Alan Amrod, you're going to need Wi-Fi.

"High-speed mobile broadband is not going to defy the laws of physics and Wi-Fi will provide the best wireless indoor experience," he said. "And if you build your enterprise Wi-Fi network with the proper architecture, you can have wired-like speeds with Wi-Fi in-building."

And finally, Wi-Fi is also likely to play a crucial role in the upcoming release of devices that operate on the so-called "white spaces" spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission opened up for unlicensed use in 2008. Under the rules adopted by the FCC, carriers and other vendors can deploy devices in unused white space spectrum that operates unlicensed at powers of 100 milliwatts, as well as on white space channels adjacent to existing television stations at powers of up to 40 milliwatts. 

This past fall, the FCC removed the requirement that devices operating on TV bands have built-in sensors that would automatically shut down the devices if they came into contact with an adjacent television signal. Instead of requiring white-space devices to have sensing technology, the FCC now says that giving devices geo-location capability and access to a spectrum database will be sufficient to protect broadcasters' spectrum from interference.

Although no one yet knows precisely what technologies will be used on white-space devices, Wi-Fi will certainly be in the mix. As Xirrus principal technologist Perry Correll noted, the IEEE is currently working on the 802.11af standard that will be designed to work specifically on open white spaces and that is due to be voted on this summer. When you add white-space Wi-Fi into the mix along with traditional Wi-Fi standards, 4G standards and Bluetooth, it becomes clear that future devices are likely to support a multitude of different antennae to connect devices to the best available network.

"Mobile devices will evolve to support multiple wireless modes," Correll said. "The client doesn't care if he's connected to white spaces or to today's Wi-Fi spectrum, he just wants to be connected."

Friday said that if white space devices are successful, it could lead the FCC to open up a lot more spectrum because it will have provided a good model for avoiding signal interference using location-based spectrum databases to seamlessly switch channels automatically.

"The white space rules the FCC adopted has created a new regulatory paradigm of a location database," he said. "This paradigm will open up more spectrum than just the UHF spectrum we're currently working with."

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