Femtocells Instead of Small Cells?

I have just seen the future of broadband and it does not consist of building millions of small 5G cell sites on poles. CableLabs has developed a femtocell technology that might already have made the outdoor 5G small cell site technology obsolete. Femtocells have been around for many years and have been deployed in rural areas to provide a connection to the cellular network through a landline broadband connection. That need has largely evaporated due the ability to use cellphones apps to directly make WiFi calls.

The concept of a femtocell is simple – it’s a small box that uses cellular frequencies to communicate with cellular devices that then hands-off calls to a landline data connection. Functionally a femtocell is a tiny cell site that can handle a relatively small volume of cellular calls simultaneously.

According to CableLabs, deploying a femtocell inside a household is far more efficient that trying to communicate with the household from a nearby pole-mounted transmitter. Femtocells eliminate one of the biggest weaknesses of outdoor small cell sites – much of the power of 5G is lost in passing through the external walls of a home. Deploying the cellular signal from within the house means a much stronger 5G signal throughout a home, allowing for more robust 5G applications.

This creates what I think is the ultimate broadband network – one that combines the advantages of a powerful landline data pipe combined with both 5G and WiFi wireless delivery within a home. This is the vision I’ve had for over a decade as the ultimate network – big landline data pipe last mile and powerful wireless networks for connecting to devices.

It’s fairly obvious that a hybrid femtocell / WiFi network has a huge cost advantage over the deployment of outdoor small cell sites on poles. It would eliminate the need for the expensive pole-mounted transmitters – and that would eliminate the battles we’re having about the proliferation of wireless devices. It’s also more efficient to deploy a femtocell network – you would deploy only to those homes that want to the 5G features – meaning you don’t waste an expensive outdoor network to get to one or two customers. It’s not hard to picture an integrated box that has both a WiFi modem and a cellular femtocell, meaning the cost to get 5G into the home would be a relatively cheap upgrade to WiFi routers rather than deploying a whole new separate 5G network.

There are significant benefits for a home to operate both 5G and WiFi. Each standard has advantages in certain situations within the home. As much as we love WiFi, it has big inherent weaknesses.  WiFi networks bogs down, by definition, when there too many devices calling for a connection. Shuttling some devices in the home to 5G would reduce WiFi collisions and makes WiFi better.

5G also has inherent advantages. An in-home 5G network could use frequency slicing to deliver exactly the right amount of bandwidth to devices. It’s not hard to picture a network where 5G is used to communicate with cellphones and small sensors of various types while WiFi is reserved for communicating with large bandwidth devices like TVs and computers.

One huge advantage of a femtocell network is that it could be deployed anywhere. The cellular companies are likely to cherry pick the outdoor 5G network deployments only to neighborhoods where the cost of backhaul is affordable – meaning that many neighborhoods will never get 5G just like many neighborhoods in the northeast never got Verizon FiOS. You could deploy a hybrid femtocell to one customer on a block and still be profitable. Femtocells also eliminate the problems of homes that won’t have line-of-sight to a pole-mounted network.

This technology obviously favors those who have built fast broadband – that’s cable companies that have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 and fiber overbuilders. For those businesses this is an exciting new product and another new revenue stream to help replace shrinking cable TV and telephone networks.

One issue that would need to be solved is spectrum, since most of it is licensed to cellular companies. The big cable companies now own some spectrum, but smaller cable companies and fiber overbuilders own none. There is no particular reason why 5G inside a home couldn’t coexist with WiFi, with both using unlicensed spectrum, with some channels dedicated to each wireless technology. That would become even easier if the FCC goes through with plans to release 6 GHz spectrum as the next unlicensed band. The femtocell network could also utilize unlicensed millimeter wave frequency.

We’ll obviously continue to need outdoor cellular networks to accommodate roaming voice and data roaming, but these are already in place today. Rather than spend tens of billions to upgrade those networks for 5G data to homes, far less expensive upgrades can be made to augment those networks only where needed rather than putting multiple small cells on every city block.

It’s been my experience over forty years of watching the industry that in the long run the most efficient technology usually wins. If CableLabs develops the right home boxes for this technology, then the cable companies will be able blitz the market with 5G much faster, and for a far lower cost than Verizon or AT&T.

It would be ironic if the best 5G solution also happens to need the fastest pipe into the home. The decisions by big telcos to not deploy fiber over the last few decades might start looking like a huge tactical blunder. It looks to me like CableLabs and the cable companies might have found the winning 5G solution for residential service.

Why I Am Thankful – 2018

It’s Thanksgiving again and I take a pause every year to look at the positive events and trends for the small ISP industry. This year was challenging in some ways because we have a current FCC that clearly favors the giant ISPs over the rest of the industry. But there are still a lot of things to be grateful for here at the end of 2018.

Local Governments Opening the Purse Strings. Local governments are listening to their constituents who are demanding broadband, and a surprising number of local communities are finding ways to help pay for broadband networks. In Minnesota alone there are a dozen counties that have agreed to make million dollar plus contributions to help fund local broadband efforts. These are de facto public-private partnerships with small telcos and rural cooperatives using that public funding to help bring broadband to rural areas.

Electric Cooperatives Have Awoken. All over the country we see electric cooperatives planning to bring broadband to their members. These cooperatives own electric grids in many of the same rural places that don’t have broadband. With existing pole lines and rights-of-way these cooperatives have a natural advantage for stringing fiber, particularly if they put the cabling into the electric space on poles and avoid costly make-ready. The coops also enjoy the natural advantage of being customer-owned and customer friendly, meaning that they are likely to see far higher penetration rates than an outside commercial operator building a broadband network.

We Finally Have the Next Big Product. I know numerous small ISPs who have seen instant success selling managed WiFi. I have clients that have achieved penetration rates north of 50% in just one year for the new product (and a few considerably higher than that). Bigger bandwidth requires an efficient and effective WiFi network and customers seem to be glad to have their ISP make this work for them.

Politicians Outside of Washington DC Get It. State legislatures all over the country are listening to constituents and are creating state broadband grant programs. Many of them are doing it the smart way and are mimicking successful grant programs like the one in Minnesota. The grant programs are coming from both red and blue states, demonstrating that broadband is not a partisan issue – almost all of rural America needs better broadband and state legislators are listening to their voters. Federal politics continue to be mired in partisan infighting and we probably won’t see anything out of them for the next few years.

FCC Holds out Possibility of New Spectrum. For the most part the FCC has been giving spectrum to the 5G industry and has not been creative in finding ways to also use spectrum to help solve the rural broadband gap. However, the FCC is looking at spectrum that would significantly benefit rural broadband. Of massive importance is the 6 GHz band being considered as the next swath of WiFi. This would double the amount of mid-range spectrum available for WiFi. The FCC is also considering other frequencies such as C-Band spectrum between 3.7GHz to 4.2 GHz. There are proposals in front of the agency to allow for 5G use in urban areas while allowing use for broadband in rural areas. The FCC may yet give this all to 5G carriers, but there are reasonable ways to share most bands of frequency to benefit both urban 5G and rural broadband.

Urban Broadband Speeds Improving. The big cable companies have unilaterally improved broadband speeds in urban areas, increasing the speed for their base products to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. You might ask how this benefits rural ISPs. The increases in speed are in response to demands from customers, and the cable companies are redefining acceptable broadband – something the FCC is never going to be realistic about. These new urban speeds were easily predictable by anybody that understand that customer demand for broadband speed and total downloads has continued to double ever three years. Fast urban broadband resets the expectation for acceptable rural broadband.

The Big Telcos are Walking Away from Rural America. This has actually been quietly happening for decades as the big telcos have refused to invest in their rural networks. CenturyLink made it clear in 2018 that they are no longer interested in ‘infrastructure returns’ like what is earned on last-mile networks. They now join Verizon, which has been furiously selling rural properties and AT&T that keeps pestering the FCC to tear down rural copper. The door is open even wider for those ISPs that want to fill the broadband gaps.

FCC Proposes New WiFi Spectrum

At their recent open meeting the FCC announced that it is proposing to use up to 1,200 megahertz of the spectrum band between 5.925 GHz and 7.125 GHz (being referred to as the 6 GHz band) as unlicensed spectrum. This is a bold proposal and more than doubles the total amount of bandwidth that would be available for WiFi.

However, their proposal comes with several proposed caveats that will have to be considered before expecting the spectrum to be useful everywhere for rural broadband. First, the FCC proposal is that any place where the spectrum is currently being used for Broadcast Auxiliary Service and Cable TV Relay service that the spectrum only be licensed for indoor use.

In those places where the spectrum is being used heavily for point-to-point microwave service, the outdoor use would have to be coordinated with existing users by use of an automated frequency coordination system, or a database, that would ensure no interference. I assume one of the rules that must be clarified is a definition of what constitutes ‘heavy’ existing point-to-point use of the spectrum.

In places where there are no existing uses of the spectrum it sounds like it would be available for outdoor use as well as indoor use.

This band of spectrum would be a great addition to networks that provide point-to-multipoint fixed wireless service. The spectrum will have a slightly smaller effective delivery area than the 5.8 GHz WiFi ISM band now widely in use. The 5.8 GHz spectrum is already the workhorse in most fixed wireless networks and adding additional spectrum would increase the bandwidth that can be delivered to a given customer in systems that can combine spectrum from various frequencies.

The key is going to be to find out what the two restrictions mean in the real world and how many places are going to have partial or total restrictions of the spectrum. Hopefully the FCC will produce maps or databases that document the areas they think are restricted using their two proposed criteria.

This spectrum would also be welcome indoors and would add more channels for home WiFi routers, making it easier to cover a home and provide coverage to greater numbers of devices simultaneously. The FCC hopes the spectrum can be used everywhere for indoor use, but they are asking the industry if that causes any problems.

Note that this is not an order, but a proposal. The FCC released a draft of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on October 2, and after this vote they should soon publish a schedule for a public comment period from the industry and other interested parties.

WiFi has been a gigantic boon to the economy and it’s a great move by the FCC to provide additional WiFi spectrum, even if this turns out to be largely restricted to indoor use. However, everybody associated with rural broadband is going to hope this is decided soon and that the frequency is added to the toolbox for serving fixed wireless in rural areas.

Interestingly, this spectrum would make it easier for ISPs that claimed they can achieve universal 100 Mbps speeds for fixed wireless in the recent reverse CAF II auctions. Perhaps some of those companies were counting on this spectrum as a way to meet that claim.

It’s always hard to predict the speed of the FCC process. I see that various WiFi-related organizations are hoping this means use of the spectrum as early as sometime next year. However, we’ve often seen the FCC proceed a lot slower than what the industry wants and one of factors the FCC is going to take into consideration is the pushback from cellular companies that will likely want this to be licensed spectrum. Unfortunately, the large cellular companies seem to be getting everything on their wish list from this FCC, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.

I imagine that device manufacturers are already considering this in the design of new hardware, but still need to know more before finalizing software. This is perhaps the best announcement so far from this FCC. The benefit to the country from WiFi is gigantic and this will vastly strengthen the advantages of WiFi.

PropTech

One of the things that I’ve always loved with our industry is that there are dozens of new acronyms to learn every year – and that’s the result of the industry always moving in new directions. The latest new acronym for me is PropTech, meaning telecom technology designed to benefit large buildings. There are now numerous companies, including well-funded start-ups, that are specializing in bringing broadband and upgrading other technology in buildings.

It’s been interesting to watch the growth of the industry over time. For many years the telecom focus for large buildings was bringing a competitive cable TV product into buildings, usually delivered by satellite.

When broadband was first introduced in the late 90s and speeds were still slow, tenants were able to get sufficient broadband from the cable or telephone incumbent. The first place we saw a demand for bigger bandwidth was in high rises housing big corporate clients. This was an area of focus for the telcos and the big CLECs that arose in the late 1990s. CLECs were measured by how many buildings they had lit with fiber – and the numbers were low, with only a handful of large buildings connected in each major city.

There were cost barriers for constructing downtown fiber – construction costs were high, gaining access to entrance facilities was a challenge and there was no easy technology for stringing fiber inside older buildings – so the number of fiber-wired buildings remained relatively small. Around 2000 we started to see newly constructed residential and business high rises come wired with fiber. But getting fiber into older buildings remained a challenge. I have numerous clients that built fiber to whole cities before 2010 but bypassed the high rises and large apartment complexes.

This started changing a decade ago as we saw new technologies aimed at more easily rewiring older buildings. Probably the most important breakthrough was flexible fiber that could easily bend around corners, allowing fiber-wiring schemes that could unobtrusively hide fiber in the corners of ceilings. Since then we’ve seen other improvements that make it easier and affordable to service larger buildings such as the use of G.Fast to distribute broadband using existing copper wiring.

PropTech is now taking real estate technology to the next level. Broadband is still the primary focus today, and building owners want fast broadband for tenants. But PropTech goes far beyond just broadband. Landlords now want to provide networked WiFi in common areas. Landlords want cellular boosters to provide better cellphone coverage for tenants. Buildings owners want to tout security and want security cameras in parking and other common areas that can be accessed by tenants. We’re seeing landlords now adding smart-home technology into upscale units. We’re also seeing buildings with business tenants constructing sophisticated data center rooms rather than the old wiring closets that used to house electronics.

Some of the new technology is designed to help landlords control their own operating expenses. This includes things like sensors and smart meters aimed at minimizing power costs. New buildings are going green, often generating much or all of their own energy needs – all supported by a robust telecom infrastructure.

Convincing landlords to spend the capital to adopt PropTech isn’t always easy. PropTech business plans stress new revenue streams from providing broadband, new revenues from increased rents and cost-savings as a way to pay for upgrades. The ultimate value to a landlord is the increased value of the property from modernizing. Some PropTech companies are even bringing the funding required to pay for the upgrades, making it easy for a landlord to say yes.

PropTech is creating some interesting changes in urban broadband. For many years the best broadband in cities was found in single family homes. But today some of the best networks and fastest data speeds are found in the high rises – where just a few years ago renters suffered from slow broadband and poor cell phone coverage.

A Better WiFi?

Regardless of the kind of ISP service you buy, almost every home network today uses WiFi for the last leg of our broadband network. Many of the broadband complaints ISPs hear about are actually problems with WiFi and not with the underlying broadband network serving the home.

Luckily the engineers that support the WiFi standards don’t sit still and are always working to improve the performance of WiFi. The latest effort was kicked off a few weeks ago when the 802.11 Extremely High Throughput Study Group of the IEEE initiated an effort to look for ways to improve peak throughput for WiFi networks.

This group will be investigating two issues. First, they want to find ways to increase peak throughput on WiFi for big data applications like video streaming, augmented reality and virtual reality. The current WiFi standard doesn’t allow for a prioritization of service and the device in your home with the lowest bandwidth requirement can claim the same priority for grabbing the WiFi signal as the most data-intensive application. This is key feature baked into the WiFi standard that was intended to allow the WiFi network to communicate simultaneously with multiple users and devices.

The Study Group will also be looking latency. We are now seeing applications in the home like immersive gaming that require extremely low latency, which is difficult to achieve on a WiFi network. Immersive gaming requires fast turnaround of packets to and from the gamer. The sharing nature of WiFi means that a WiFi network will interrupt a stream to a gamer when it sees demand from another device. Such interruptions are quick, but multiple short interruptions means a big data stream stops and starts and packets get lost and have to be resent. Changing this will be a big challenge because the pauses taken to accommodate multiple applications is they key characteristic of the sharing nature of WiFi.

This Study Group effort is a perfect example of how standards change over time. They are trying to accommodate new requirements into an existing technology. We’ve never had applications in the home environment that require the combination of dedicated bandwidth and extremely low latency. In a business environment any application of this nature would typically be hard-wired into a network and not use WiFi. However, businesses now also want mobile performance for applications like augmented reality that must be supported wirelessly.

The Study Group is taking the first step, which is to define the problem to be solved. That means looking in detail at how WiFi networks operates when asked to handle big data applications in a busy environment. This deep look will let the engineers more specifically define the exact way that WiFi interferes with ideal network performance. If they have one, the Study Group might suggest specific solutions to fix the identified problems, but it’s possible they won’t have one.

The end result of the work from the Study group is a detailed description of the problem. In this case they will identify the specific aspects of the current WiFi specifications that are interfering with the desired performance. The Group will also specifically define the hoped-for results that would come with a change in the WiFi standard. This kind of document gives the whole industry a roadmap and set of specific goals to tackle, and interested labs at universities and manufacturers around the world will tackle the problem defined by the Study Group.

Most people in the industry probably view standards as a finished product, as a specific immutable description of how a technology works. However, almost the exact opposite is true and standards are instead a list of performance goals. As engineers and scientists find ways to satisfy the goals those goals the standards are amended to include the new solutions. This is done publicly so that all of the devices using the protocol are compatible.

I just had this same discussion a few days ago concerning the 5G standards. At this early stage of 5G development what’s been agreed upon is the overall goals for the new wireless protocol. As various breakthroughs are achieved to meet those goals the standards will be updated and amended. The first set of goals for 5G are a high-level wish list of hoped-for performance. Over the next decade the 5G standard will be modified numerous times as technical solutions are found to help to achieve those performance goals. It’s possible that some of the goals will never be met while others will be surpassed, but any given time the 5G ‘standard’ will be a huge set of documents that define the current agreed-upon ways that must be followed by anybody making 5G gear.

This Work Group has their work cut out for them, because the issues that are interfering with large dedicated data connections or that are introducing latency into WiFi are core components of the original WiFi specification. When the choice was made to allow WiFi to share bandwidth among all users it made it difficult, and maybe impossible to somehow treat some packets better then the rest. I’m glad to know that there are engineers who are always working ahead of the market looking to solve such problems.

Verizon’s Case for 5G, Part 1

Ronan Dunne, an EVP and President of Verizon Wireless recently made Verizon’s case for aggressively pursuing 5G. On an investor call he talked about potential ways that the company might monetize the new technology. Over a series of blogs I’m going to look at the various market applications of 5G envisioned by Verizon.

Mr. Dunne thinks 5G cellular can be used to develop advanced networks to provide better long-term patient monitoring. The solution he envisions would use cellular technology to power medical monitoring devices worn by patients or used in homes.

This one application gets to the heart of Verizon’s vision of the future with using 5G as the primary technology to connect to IoT devices. Today there are already health and medical devices connected through the cellular network. For example, there are GPS-enabled running watches today that require a cellular subscription. These devices communicate 2-way with the cloud through cellular. They can upload a runner’s statistics like heart rate and can also download things like a map of the runner’s location.

However, there are huge numbers of similar devices that don’t use cellular. For example, there are running monitors that provide the same features by connecting through a runner’s smartphone, which the runner must carry to get the same kind of feedback. Many of the most popular devices like Fitbit don’t require cellular at all and can store runner’s statistics until they can sync with their home WiFi network. There are also many in-home medical monitors that connect only through WiFi.

Verizon wants to capture the IoT market, and medical devices are just one of the many market niches they envision. In their vision of the future, all medical monitors would come with a cellular subscription. For medical devices that need to be connected 24/7 this application makes a lot of sense. For example, out-patients after surgery could be monitored at all times and wouldn’t be restricted to being in range of a WiFi network.

But this comes with a cost, at least today. Currently WiFi and Bluetooth technology is cheap and there is very little incremental cost of building these technologies into the chips in devices – many common chips already have built-in WiFi. It’s more expensive today to provide a 2-way cellular device.

There are also weaknesses with cellular coverage that would need to be addressed. For example, I can see a weak Verizon signal from my upstairs office, but I have zero bars of coverage on the first floor or in my yard. There are still a lot of homes today who have no cellular coverage, or coverage only outside or in some parts of their home.

Like many of the applications that Verizon has in mind, the goal is for them to sell many more cellular subscriptions. Practically everybody in the country now has a cellphone and Verizon envisions IoT-monitoring subscriptions as a way to boost sales. But this is going to require a public willing to pay more for the extra connectivity. In the case of medical monitoring, a device that can connect to WiFi in the home or to a smartphone outside the home can provide the same connectivity at zero extra cost to the consumer. My guess is that Verizon will be pushing sales of medical monitoring through doctors and hospitals, because a lot of consumers would choose the cheaper alternative if they are given a choice.

The battle to connect to in-home medical devices will be an even harder sale for Verizon to win because most homes today have WiFi. Verizon pictures a future world where all of our IoT devices connect using cellular. This connectivity is made easier with 5G since the new specification calls for allowing 100,000 simultaneous connections to devices from each cell site. However, WiFi already has a huge market lead in this area and IoT devices come WiFi enabled, I foresee a huge uphill fight for Verizon to try to capture this business. I know personally that, given a choice, I’m going to buy an appliance with WiFi connectivity over a model that requires an additional cellular subscription, no matter how small the extra fee. Verizon ultimately foresees homes paying an additional $20 or $30 per month for IoT connectivity, which translates to huge profits for the company.

As a consumer I also worry about privacy using the cellular network. Today my landline ISP needs to somehow pick out my IoT signals from the rest of bits generated from my home – something I can easily hide if I wish to. But Verizon would automatically know the source of the communication from each IoT device connected to their network, allowing them to more easily spy on my IoT outputs – particularly if they are the ones translating the signals to send back to doctors, hospitals or whoever is at the other end of each IoT device. I really don’t trust Verizon enough to let them peer that easily into my personal data.

This application is no slam dunk for Verizon. There is certainly an opportunity for them to convince health care companies to use devices that require an extra 5G connectivity charge each month. But when this choice is left up to consumers I think most of them will choose to keep using WiFi once they understand all of the facts.

Will 5G Phones Need WiFi?

Our cellular networks have become heavily reliant on customers using WiFi. According to Cisco’s latest Virtual Network Index about 60% of the data generated from cellphones is carried over WiFi and landline broadband connections. Most of us have our cellphones set to grab WiFi networks that we are comfortable with, particularly in the home and office.

The move to use WiFi for data was pushed by the cellular companies. As recently as just a few years ago they were experiencing major congestion at cell sites. This congestion was due to a combination of cell sites using older versions of 4G technology and of inadequate backhaul data pipes feeding many cell sites. The cellular carriers and manufacturers made it easy to switch back and forth between cellular and WiFi and most people quickly got adept at minimizing data usage on the cellular network.

Many people have also started using WiFi calling. This is particularly valuable to those who live or work in a building with poor indoor cellular coverage, and WiFi calling allows a phone to process voice through the WiFi connection. But this has always been a sketchy technology and WiFi calling is often susceptible to poor voice quality and unexpected call droppage due to WiFi fluctuations. WiFi calling also doesn’t roam, so anybody walking out of the range of their WiFi router automatically drops the call.

However, recently we’ve seen possibly the start of a trend of more broadband traffic staying on the cellular network. In a recent blog I cited evidence that unlimited cellular customers are using less WiFi and are instead staying on their cellular data network even when WiFi is available. Since most people use WiFi to preserve usage on their cellular data plans, as more people feel comfortable about not hitting a data caps we ought to see many people sticking more to cellular.

5G ought to make it even easier to keep traffic on the cellular network. The new standard will make it easier to make and hold a connection to a cell site due to a big increase in the number of possible simultaneous connections available at each cell site. This should finally eliminate not being able to make a cellular connection in crowded locations.

The 5G improvements are also going to increase the available bandwidth to cellphones through the use of multiple antennas and frequencies. The expectations are that cellphone download speeds will creep up with each incremental improvement in the coming 5G networks and that speeds will slowly improve over the next decade.

Unfortunately this improved performance might not make that big of a difference within buildings with poor cellular coverage today, because for the most part the frequencies used for 5G cellular will be the same ones used today. We keep reading about the coming use of millimeter waves, but the characteristics of those frequencies, such as the short distances covered are going to best fit urban areas and it’s likely to be a long while until we see these frequencies being used everywhere in the cellular networks. Even where used, those higher frequencies will have an even harder time penetrating buildings than today’s lower frequencies.

Overall, the improvements of 5G ought to mean that cellular customers ought to be able to stay more easily with cellular networks and not need WiFi to the same extent as today. A transition to less use of WiFi will be accelerated if the cellular marketing plans continue to push unlimited or large data-cap plans.

This all has big implications on network planning. Today’s cellular networks would be instantly swamped if people stopped using WiFi. The use of cellular data is also growing at a much faster pace than the use of landline data. Those two factors together portends a blazingly fast growth in the backhaul needed for cell sites. We are likely to see geometric rates of growth, making it expensive and difficult for the cellular carriers to keep up with data demand. It’s sounding to me like being a cellular network planner might be one of the hardest jobs in the industry right now.

The Future of WiFi

There are big changes coming over the next few years with WiFi. At the beginning of 2017 a study by Parks Associates showed that 71% of broadband homes now use WiFi to distribute the signal – a percentage that continues to grow. New home routers now use the 802.11ac standard, although there are still plenty of homes running the older 802.11n technology.

But there is still a lot of dissatisfaction with WiFi and many of my clients tell me that most of the complaints they get about broadband connections are due to WiFi issues. These ISPs deliver fast broadband to the home only to see WiFi degrading the customer experience. But there are big changes coming with the next generation of WiFi that ought to improve the performance of home WiFi networks. The next generation of WiFi devices will be using the 802.11ax standard and we ought to start seeing devices using the standard by early 2019.

There are several significant changes in the 802.11ax standard that will improve the customer WiFi experience. First is the use of a wider spectrum channel at 160 MHz, which is four times larger than the channels used by 802.11ac. A bigger channel means that data can be delivered faster, which will solve many of the deficiencies of current WiFi home networks. This will improve the network performance using the brute strength approach of pushing more data through a connection faster.

But probably more significant is the use in 802.11ax of 4X4 MIMO (multiple input / multiple output) antennas. These new antennas will be combined with orthogonal frequency division multiple access (ODMFA). Together these new technologies will provide for multiple and separate data streams within a WiFi network. In layman’s terms think of the new technology as operating four separate WiFi networks simultaneously. By distributing the network load to separate channels the interference on any given channel will decrease.

Reducing interference is important because that’s the cause of a lot of the woes of current WiFi networks. The WiFi standard allows for unlimited access to a signal and every device within the range of a WiFi network has an equal opportunity to grab the WiFi network. It is this open sharing that lets us connect lots of different devices easily to a WiFi network.

But the sharing has a big downside. A WiFi network shares signals by shutting down when it gets more than one request for a signal. The network pauses for a short period of time and then bursts energy to the first network it notices when it reboots. In a busy WiFi environment the network stops and starts often causing the total throughput on the network to drop significantly.

But with four separate networks running at the same time there will be far fewer stops and starts and a user on any one channel should have a far better experience than today. Further, with the ODMFA technology the data from multiple devices can coexist better, meaning that a WiFi router can better handle more than one device at the same time, further reducing the negative impacts of completing signals. The technology lets the network smoothly mix signals from different devices to avoid network stops and starts.

The 802.11ax technology ought to greatly improve the home WiFi experience. It will have bigger channels, meaning it can send and receive data to WiFi connected devices faster. And it will use the MIMO antennas to make separate connections with devices to limit signal collision.

But 802.11ax is not the last WiFi improvement we will see. Japanese scientists have made recent breakthroughs in using what is called the TeraHertz range of frequency – spectrum greater than 300 GHz per second. They’ve used the 500 GHz band to create a 34 Gbps WiFi connection. Until now work in these higher frequencies have been troublesome because the transmission distances for data transmission has been limited to extremely short distances of a few centimeters.

But the scientists have created an 8-array antenna that they think can extent the practical reach of fast WiFi to as much as 30 feet – more than enough to create blazingly fast WiFi in a room. These frequencies will not pass through barriers and would require a small transmitter in each room. But the scientists believe the transmitters and receivers can be made small enough to fit on a chip – making it possible to affordably put the chips into any device including cell phones. Don’t expect multi-gigabit WiFi for a while. But it’s good to know that scientists are working a generation or two ahead on technologies that we will eventually want.

More Pressure on WiFi

As if we really needed more pressure put onto our public WiFi spectrum, both Verizon and AT&T are now launching Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) broadband for smartphones. This is the technology that allows cellular carriers to mix LTE spectrum with the unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum for providing cellular broadband. The LAA technology allows for the creation of ‘fatter’ data pipes by combining multiple frequencies, and the wider the data pipe the more data that makes it to the end-user customer.

When carriers combine frequencies using LAA they can theoretically create a data pipe as large as a gigabit while only using 20 MHz of licensed frequency. The extra bandwidth for this application comes mostly from the unlicensed 5 GHz band and is similar to the fastest speeds that we can experience at home using this same frequency with 802.11AC. However, such high-speed bandwidth is only useful for a short distance of perhaps 150 feet and the most practical use of LAA is to boost cellphone data signals for customers closest to a cell tower. That’s going to make LAA technology most beneficial in dense customer environments like busy downtown areas, stadiums, etc. LAA isn’t going to provide much benefit to rural cellphone towers or those along interstate highways.

Verizon recently did a demonstration of the LAA technology that achieved a data speed of 953 Mbps. They did this using three 5 GHz channels combined with one 20 megahertz channel of AWS spectrum. Verizon used a 4X4 MIMO (multiple input / multiple output) antenna array and 256 QAM modulation to achieve this speed. The industry has coined the new term of four-carrier aggregation for the technology since it combines 4 separate bands of bandwidth into one data pipe. A customer would need a specialized MIMO antenna to receive the signal and also would need to be close to the transmitter to receive this kind of speed.

Verizon is starting to update selected cell sites with the technology this month. AT&T has announced that they are going to start introducing LAA technology along with 4-way carrier aggregation by the end of this year. It’s important to note that there is a big difference between the Verizon test with 953 Mbps speeds and what customers will really achieve in the real world. There are numerous factors that will limit the benefits of the technology. First, there aren’t yet any handsets with the right antenna arrays and it’s going to take a while to introduce them. These antennas look like they will be big power eaters, meaning that handsets that try to use this bandwidth all of the time will have short battery lives. But there are more practical limitations. First is the distance limitation and many customers will be out of range of the strongest LAA signals. A cellular company is also not going to try to make this full data connection using all 4 channels to one customer for several reasons, the primary one being the availability of the 5 GHz frequency.

And that’s where the real rub comes in with this technology. The FCC approved the use of this new technology last year. They essentially gave the carriers access to the WiFi spectrum for free. The whole point of licensed spectrum is to provide data pipes for all of the many uses not made by licensed wireless carriers. WiFi is clearly the most successful achievement of the FCC over the last few decades and providing big data pipes for public use has spawned gigantic industries and it’s hard to find a house these days without a WiFi router.

The cellular carriers have paid billions of dollars for spectrum that only they can use. The rest of the public uses a few bands of ‘free’ spectrum, and uses it very effectively. To allow the cellular carriers to dip into the WiFi spectrum runs the risk of killing that spectrum for all of the other uses. The FCC supposedly is requiring that the cellular carriers not grab the 5 GHz spectrum when it’s already busy in use. But to anybody that understands how WiFi works that seems like an inadequate protection, because any of the use of this spectrum causes interference by definition.

In practical use if a user can see three or more WiFi networks they experience interference, meaning that more than one network is trying to use the same channel at the same time. It is the nature of this interference that causes the most problems with WiFi performance. When two signals are both trying to use the same channel, the WiFi standard causes all competing devices to go quiet for a short period of time, and then both restart and try to grab an open channel. If the two signals continue to interfere with each other, the delay time between restarts increases exponentially in a phenomenon called backoff. As there are more and more collisions between competing networks, the backoff increases and the performance of all devices trying to use the spectrum decays. In a network experiencing backoff the data is transmitted in short bursts between the times that the connection starts and stops from the interference.

And this means that when the cellular companies use the 5 GHz spectrum they will be interfering with the other users of that frequency. That’s what WiFi was designed to do and so the interference is unavoidable. This means other WiFi users in the immediate area around an LAA transmitter will experience more interference and it also means a degraded WiFi signal for the cellular users of the technology – and they reason they won’t get speeds even remotely close to Verizon’s demo speeds. But the spectrum is free for the cellular companies and they are going to use it, to the detriment of all of the other uses of the 5 GHz spectrum. With this decision the FCC might well have nullified the tremendous benefits that we’ve seen from the 5 GHz WiFi band.

The Future of WiFi

There are a lot of near-term improvements planned for WiFi. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group (part of the Wi-Fi Alliance) has a number of improvements being planned. Many, but not all of the improvements, look at the future of using the newly available millimeter wave spectrum.

It’s been twenty years since the first WiFi standard was approved. I remember how great it felt about fifteen years ago when Verizon gave me a WiFi modem as part of my new FiOS service. Up until then my computing had always been tied to cables and it was so freeing to use a laptop anywhere in the house (although that first generation WiFi didn’t do a great job of penetrating the plaster walls in my old house).

Here are some of the improvements being considered:

802.11ax. The goal of this next-gen WiFi is to enable speeds up to 10 Gbps using the 5 GHz band of free WiFi spectrum. The standard also seeks to provide more bandwidth in the 2.4 GHz band. The developing new standard is looking at the use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), multi-user MIMO and other technology improvements to squeeze more bandwidth out of the currently available WiFi frequency.

Interestingly, this standard only calls for an improvement of about 37% over today’s 802.11ac technology, but the various improvement in the way the spectrum is used will hopefully mean about a four times greater delivery of bandwidth.

Probably the biggest improvement with this standard is the ability to connect efficiently to a greater number of devices. At first this will make 802.11ax WiFi more useful in crowded environments like stadiums and other public places. But the real benefit is to make WiFi the go-to spectrum for use for the Internet of Things. There is a huge race going on between WiFi and cellular technologies to grab the majority of that exploding market. For now, for indoor uses WiFi has the lead and most IoT devices today are WiFi connected. But today’s WiFi networks can get bogged down when there are too many simultaneous requests for connections. We’ll have to wait to see if the changes to the standards improve WiFi enough to keep in ahead in the IoT race.

Of course, the 10 GHz speed is somewhat theoretical in it would provide all of the bandwidth to one device that was located close the transmitter – but the overall improvement in bandwidth promises to be dramatic. This new standard is expected to be finalized by 2019, but there will probably be new hardware that incorporates some of the planned upgrades by 2018.

802.11ay. 802.11ay is the successor to 802.11ad, which never got any market traction. These two standards utilize the 60 GHz spectrum and are intended to deliver big amounts of bandwidth for short distances, such as inside a room. This new standard promises to improve short-range bandwidth up to 20 Gbps, about a three times improvement over 802.11ad. The new standard might have the same market acceptance issues if most users are satisfied instead with 802.11ax. The primary improvements over 802.11ad are the addition of MIMO antennas with up to four simultaneous data streams.

802.11az. The earlier two improvements discussed above are aimed at improving bandwidth to WiFi users. The 802.11az standard instead looks at ways to improve the location and positioning of users on a WiFi network. Since many of the improvements in WiFi use MIMO (multiple input multiple output) antennas, system performance is improved significantly if the WiFi router can accurately and quickly keep track of the precise location of each user on the WiFi network. That’s a relatively simple task in a static environment of talking to fixed-location devices like a TV or appliances, but much harder to do with mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, etc. Improvements in locating technology allows a WiFi network to more quickly track and connect to a device without having to waste frequency resources to first find the device before each transmission.

The other big improvement promised by this standard is increased energy efficiency of the network. As the network becomes adroit at identifying and remembering the location of network devices, the standard allows for WiFi devices to shut down and go to sleep and drop off the network when not in use, saving energy for devices like IoT sensors. The WiFi hub and sensor devices can be ‘scheduled’ to connect at fixed times allowing for devices to save power by sleeping in between connections.

These changes are necessary to keep WiFi useful and relevant. The number of devices that are going to be connected to WiFi is expected to continue to grow at exponential rates, and today’s WiFi can bog down under heavy use, as anybody who tries to use WiFi in a business hotel understands. But a lot of the problems with today’s WiFi can be fixed with the combination of faster data throughput along with tweaks that reduce the problems caused by interference among devices trying to gain the attention of the hug modem. The various improvements planned by the IEEE Working Group are addressing all of these issues.