The Death of WiFI Hotspots?

I’ve been thinking about the new unlimited data plans and wondering what impact they will have on public WiFi. As I wrote in a recent blog, none of the plans from the major cellular carriers are truly unlimited. But they have enough data available that somebody who isn’t trying to use one of these plans for a home landline connection will now have a lot more data available than ever before.

The plans from the big four carriers have soft monthly download caps of 22 Gigabytes or higher, at which point they throttle to slower speeds. But 22 to 30 GB is a huge cap for anybody that’s been living with caps under 5 GB or sharing family plans at 10 GB. And to go along with these bigger caps, the cellular companies are also now offering zero-rated video that customers can watch without touching the data caps. That combination is going to let cellphone users use a mountain of data during a month.

So I wonder how many people who buy these plans will bother to log onto WiFi in coffee shops, airports and hotels any longer? I know I probably will not. For the last few years I’ve seen articles almost weekly warning of the dangers of public WiFi and I’ve become wary of using WiFi in places like Starbucks. And WiFi in other public places has largely grown to be unusable. WiFi can be okay in business hotels in the early afternoon or at 3:00 in the morning, but is largely worthless in the prime time evening hours. And free airport WiFi in the bigger airports is generally already too slow to use.

If you think forward a few years you have to wonder how long it’s going to take before public WiFi wanes as a phenomenon? Huge numbers of restaurants, stores, doctor offices, etc. spend money today on broadband and on WiFi routers for their customers and you have to wonder why they would continue to do that if nobody is asking for it. And that’s going to mean a big decrease in sales of industrial grade WiFi routers and landline broadband connections. Many of these places already buy a second data connection for the public and those connections will probably be canceled in droves.

I wonder how much sense it makes for Comcast and others to keep pouring money into outdoor hotspots if people stop using them? You only have to go back a few years to remember when the concept of building the biggest outdoor hotspot network was the goal for some of the largest cable companies. Already today my wife has to turn off her WiFi when running in the neighborhood since her phone constantly drops her music stream through attempts to change to each Comcast WiFi connection she runs past. How many people with these unlimited plans will even bother to ever turn on their WiFi?

I also wonder if the cellular networks are really ready for this shift. There is a huge amount of data shifted today from cellphones to hotspots. As a business traveler I’m already thinking about how hard it might be soon to get a cellular data connection during the business hours if nobody is using the hotel WiFi. I know that 5G is going to fix this issue by offering many more connections per cell site, but we aren’t going to see widespread 5G cell sites for at least five years and probably a little longer.

I’ve always found it interesting how quickly changes seem to hit and sweep the cellular industry. There was virtually no talk a year ago about unlimited data plans. In fact, at that time both AT&T and Verizon were punishing those with legacy unlimited plans to try to drive them to some other plan. But the industry has finally plateaued on customer growth and cellular service is quickly becoming a commodity. I think a lot of us saw that coming, but I never suspected that the way it would manifest would be with competition of unlimited calling and the possible death of public WiFi. I don’t know if this industry will ever stop surprising us at times.

I guess a day could come soon when kids will have no memory of public hotspots. I can remember fondly when traveling to places like Puerto Rico or the Caribbean that the first thing you did on landing was find the locations of the Internet cafes. I remember back when our company decided to move out of our offices that one of my partners practically lived in a Starbucks for the next year. It was an interesting phase of our industry, but one whose days are probably now numbered.

A New WiFi Standard

Wi-FiThere is a new version of WiFi coming soon that ought to solve some of the major problems with using WiFi in the home and in busy environments. The new standard has been labeled as 802.11ax and should start shipping in new routers by the end of this year and start appearing in devices in early 2018.

It’s the expected time for a new standard since there has been a new one every four or five years. 802.11a hit the market in 1999, 802.11g in 2003, 802.11n in 2009 and 802.11ac in 2013.

One of the most interesting thing about this new standard is that it’s a hardware upgrade and not a real change in the standards. It will be backwards compatible with earlier versions of 802.11, but both the router and the end devices must be upgraded to use the new standard. This means that business travelers are going to get frustrated when visiting hotels without the new routers.

One improvement is that the new routers will treat the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums as one big block of spectrum, making it more likely to find an open channel. Most of today’s routers make you pick one band or the other.

Another improvement in 801.11ax is that the routers will have more antennas in the array, making it possible to connect with more devices at the same time. It’s also going to use MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antenna arrays, allowing it to identify individual users and to establish fixed links to them. A lot of the problems in current WiFi routers come when routers get overwhelmed with more requests for service than the number of antennas that are available.

In addition to more signal paths the biggest improvement will be that the new 801.22ax routers will be able to better handle simultaneous requests for use of a single channel. The existing 802.11 standards are designed to share spectrum and when a second request is made to use a busy channel, the first transmission is stopped while the router decides which stream to satisfy – and this keep repeating as the router bounces back and forth between the two users. This is not a problem when there are only a few requests for simultaneous use, but in a crowded environment the constant stopping and starting of the router results in a lot of the available spectrum going unused and in nobody receiving a sustained signal.

The new 802.11ax routers will use OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiplying) to allow multiple users to simultaneously use the same channel without the constant stopping and starting at each new request for service. A hotel with a 100 Mbps backbone might theoretically be able to allow 20 users to each receive a 5 Mbps stream from a single WiFi channel. No wireless system will be quite that efficient, but you get the idea. A router with 802.11ax can still get overwhelmed, but it takes a lot more users to get to that condition.

We’ll have to wait and see how that works in practice. Today, if you visit a busy business hotel where there might be dozens of devices trying to use the bandwidth, the constant stopping and starting of the WiFi signal usually results in a large percentage of the bandwidth not being given to any user – it’s lost during the on/off sequences. But the new standard will give everybody an equal share of the bandwidth until all of the bandwidth is used or until it runs out of transmitter antennas.

The new standard also allows for scheduling connections between the router and client devices. This means more efficient use of spectrum since the devices will be ready to burst data when scheduled. This will allow devices like cellphones to save battery power by ‘resting’ when not transmitting since they save on making unneeded requests for connection.

All these various changes also mean that the new routers will use only about one-third the energy of current routers. Because the router can establish fixed streams with a given user it can avoid the constant off/off sequences.

The most interesting downside to the new devices will be that their biggest benefits only kick in when most of the connected devices are using the new standard. This means that the benefits on public networks might not be noticeable for the first few years until a significant percentage of cellphones, tablets, and laptops have been upgraded to the new standard.

The Internet of Everywhere

tostitos-logoForget the Internet of Things. That is already passé and I saw something yesterday that made me realize we have now moved on to the Internet of Everywhere.

Tostitos has put out a special ‘party bag’ of chips for the SuperBowl. The bag contains a chip and a tiny sensor that can detect traces of alcohol on your breath when you breathe on it. If you test as intoxicated the bag will light up red and flash “Don’t Drink and Drive.” But that’s only the beginning. If you set off the red flash you can tap the bag against your smartphone and it will automatically call Uber and give you a $10 discount on your ride.

This is obviously a super-cool marketing idea and I expect the company to sell lots of bags of chips and will get a lot of positive press. And I would expect a lot of people will strive to make the bag flash red. But this demonstrates how cheap computer chips have become when a company can design a campaign using millions of chips in throwaway bags for a one-time promotion. This goes to show how amazingly small sensors have become that this bag can give you a mini-breathalyzer. I’m sure the test is not super-accurate, but the very fact that it can do this and still be affordable is amazing.

Engineers have been predicting this sort of technology for a few years. For example, there are now chips that can be printed onto human skin and can act as a keypad for your smartphone. We are not far away from having chips printed on every grocery item in the store, which will simplify checkout and will fully automate inventory control. With cheap chips we can literally sprinkle sensors throughout a farm field to cheaply monitor for the localized need for water, fertilizer or the presence of pests.

The real Internet of Things isn’t going to be unleashed until we can develop affordable swarms of sensors and also provide a way for them to communicate with each other. Today the IoT is being used mainly to monitor factory production and in homes for alarm monitoring and other similar functions. But the revolutionary value of IoT will come when it can grow to be the Internet of Everywhere.

Then we can have constant monitors inside our blood stream to sense for diseases and to fight them off early. We can monitor sensitive environmental areas to protect endangered wildlife. We can monitor our homes to a degree never done before – want to know if a mouse just snuck in – done!

There have been a lot of breakthroughs in creating small, low-power sensors. But the real challenge is still to find a way to communicate easily and reliably with a cloud of sensors. We are not going to be able to create a WiFi path with a thousand different home sensors but will need some sort of mesh technology that can first collect and make sense of what the sensors are telling us.

But I have no doubt that if a potato chip bag can tell me if I’ve had too much to drink and can then call for a ride to take me home, that we are making great progress.

And as I write this blog I’m sitting here thinking of if only I could show this bag to one of my long-passed grandparents. What would they ever make of this flashing chip bag, of my smartphone and of Uber? But then again, perhaps their biggest question might first be, “What is a Tostito?”

The Battle for IoT Connectivity

Amazon EchoThere is a major battle brewing for control of the connections that control the Internet of Things. Today in the early stage of home IoT most devices are being connected using WiFi. But there is going to be a huge push to have connection instead made through 5G cellular.

I saw an article this week where Qualcomm said that they were excited about 5G and that it would be a world-changing technology. The part of 5G that they are most excited about is the possibility of using 5G to connect IoT devises together. Qualcomm’s CEO Stephen Mollenkopf talked about 5G at the recent CES show and talked about a future where 5G is used for live-streaming virtual reality, autonomous cars and connected cities where street lamps are networked together.

Of course, Qualcomm and the cellular vendors are most interested in the potential for making money using 5G technology. Qualcomm wants to make the hundreds of millions of chips they envision in a 5G connected world. And Verizon and AT&T want to sell data connections to all of the 5G connected devices. It’s an interesting vision of the world. Some of that vision makes sense and 5G is the obvious way to connect outdoors for things like street lights.

But it’s not obvious to me at this early stage of IoT that either 5G or WiFi are the obvious winner of the battle for IoT connectivity in the home. There are pros and cons for each technology.

WiFi has an upper hand today because it’s already in almost every home. People are comfortable using WiFi because it doesn’t cost anything extra to connect an IoT device. But WiFi has some natural limitations that might make it a harder choice in the future if our homes get filled with IoT devices. As I’ve discussed in some recent blogs, the way that WiFi shares data can be a big problem when there is a lot of steady and continuous demand for the bandwidth. WiFi is probably a great choice for IoT devices that only occasionally need to make a connection or that need short-burst connections to share information.

But the WiFi standard doesn’t include quality of service and any prioritization of which connections are the most important. WiFi instead always does its best to share bandwidth, regardless of the number of devices that are asking to connect to it. When a WiFi router gets multiple demands it shuts down for a short period and then tries to reinitiate connections again. If too many devices are demanding connection, a WiFi system goes into a mode of continuously stopping and restarting and none of the connections get a satisfactory connection. Even if there is enough bandwidth in the network to handle most of the requests, too many simultaneous requests simply blows the brains out of WiFi. The consequence for this is that having a lot of small and inconsequential connections can ruin the important connections like video streaming or gaming.

But cellular data is also not an automatic answer. Certainly today there is no way to cope with IoT using 4G cellular networks. Each cell site has a limited number of connections. A great example of this is that I often talk to a buddy of mine in DC while he commutes, and he usually loses his cellular signal when crossing the between Maryland and Virginia. This is due to there not being enough cellular connections available in the limited area of the American Legion bridge. 5G will supposedly solve this problem and promises to expand the number of connections from a cell site by a factor of 50 times or so – meaning that there will be a lot more possible connections. But you still have to wonder if that will be sufficient in a world when every IoT device wants a connection. LG just announced that every appliance it sells will now come with an IoT connection, and I imagine this will soon be true of all appliances, toys and almost anything else you buy in the future that has any electronics.

Of a bigger concern to me is that 5G connections are not going to be free. With WiFi, once I’ve bought my home broadband connection I can add devices at will (until I overload my router). But I think Verizon and AT&T are excited about IoT because they want to charge a small monthly fee for every device you connect through them. It may not be a lot – perhaps a dollar per device per month – but the next thing you know every home will be sending then an additional $50 or more per month to keep IoT devices connected. It’s no wonder they are salivating at the possibility. And it’s no wonder that the big cable companies are talking about buying T-Mobile.

I’m also concerned from a security perspective of sending the data from all of my IoT devices to the same core routers at Verizon or AT&T. Since it’s likely that the recent privacy rules for broadband will be overturned or weakened, I am concerned about having one company know so much about me. If I use a WiFi network my feeds will still go out through my data ISP, but if I’m concerned about security I can encrypt my network and make it harder for them to know what I’m doing. That is going to be impossible to do with a cellular connection.

But one thing is for sure and this is going to be a huge battle. And it’s likely to be fought behind the scenes as the cellular companies try to make deals with device manufacturers to use 5G instead of WiFi. WiFi has the early lead today and it’s still going to be a while until there are functional 5G cellular networks. But once those are in place it’s going to be a war worth watching.

Why is my WiFi Slow?

Wi-FiOne of the universal complaints in the broadband world is that WiFi networks operate poorly. So today I thought I’d talk a bit about how WiFi functions. I think it’s probably different than what most people expect.

Most people know that there are two frequencies used for WiFi today – 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The 2.4 GHz band covers 80 megahertz of total bandwidth and is divided into 11 channels in the US. That may sound like a lot, but one 802.11 connection requires five consecutive channels. In practical terms this means that almost all WiFi gear in the US is preset to only offer channels 1, 6, and 11 and that means that only three non-overlapping transmissions can occur at the same time. The WiFi in Japan covers a wider spectrum footprint, up to channel 14, meaning they can use four non-overlapping signals simultaneously.

In practical use if you can see three or more WiFi networks you are experiencing 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. Your data is transmitted in short bursts each time you make a connection and before the restart cycle repeats.

If you’ve ever been in a hotel where you can see ten or more other WiFi signals, the reason for slow speeds is that there are huge conflicts between competing devices. People generally assume that the hotel has a poor Internet connection, but they could have a fast connection and the slo speeds are due to so many devices trying to connect simultaneously. Each WiFi device is rapidly turning on and off repeatedly trying to get open access to a channel. Your device will grab a channel for a short time and then get kicked off due to interference. Congestion has become so bad on the 2.4 GHz band that AT&T and Comcast no longer use 2.4 GHz for video or voice. Almost all smartphone makers no longer recommend using their smartphones at 2.4 GHz.

WiFi has improved dramatically with the introduction of the 5 GHz spectrum. In North America this spectrum swath has 24 non-overlapping channels. However, more than half of these channels are reserved for weather and military radar. However, this still provides a lot more potential paths to add to the three paths provided by the 2.4 GHz spectrum. Unfortunately the 5 GHz band shares the same WiFi characteristics as the 2.4 GHz spectrum and has the identical interference issues. But with more open channels there is still an increased chance of finding a free channel to use.

And interference between devices is not the only culprit of poor WiFi speeds. The network configuration can also contribute to poor performance. Some of the biggest sources of interference are range extenders or mesh networks that are used to try to get better signals. Range extenders listen to all WiFi transmissions and then retransmit them at a higher power level, and usually using a different channel. This creates even more WiFi signals in the intermediate environment competing for an open channel. When you can see your neighbor’s WiFi network, if they are using range extenders they might be always trying to use most of the available WiFi channels.

In a lot of the US we now also see a lot of public hotspots. For example, Comcast is in my neighborhood and I can walk and maintain a WiFi signal is most places from WiFi public signals that are transmitted from every Comcast home WiFi router. These public signals are always on, meaning that the WiFi router is using at least one channel at all times.

Probably the biggest new culprit for poor WiFi performance comes from our quest for greater speeds. The 802.11ac standard operates by merging together a lot of WiFi channels, and divides the whole WiFi spectrum into just two 160 MHz-wide channels. This means that only two devices using this 802.11ac can use up all of your home WiFi bandwidth. This standard was intended to be used to operate in short high-bandwidth bursts, but as people use this for gaming or watching 4K video the channels stay occupied all of the time.

Unfortunately the demands for WiFi are only increasing. The cellular carriers are still pestering the FCC to allow LTE-U, which would using WiFi to complete cellular calls. There are currently tests underway of the technology. We can also expect an increasing demand for WiFi from IoT devices. While most WiFi devices won’t use spectrum continuously, they still place demands on the channels and cause interference. There are also increasing use of devices that are always on, such as video surveillance cameras or smart home controllers like the Amazon Echo. A lot of experts look out five or ten years and expect WiFi to be unusable in a lot of places.

How We Use Cellphone Data

HTC-Incredible-S-SmartphoneNielsen recently took a look at how we use cellphone data. They installed apps on people’s phones that tracked data usage on both cellular networks and WiFi. The data comes from a massive study on the usage of 45,000 Android users in August. Nielsen also continues to study the usage of 30,000 cellular customers every month using the same app.

What Nielsen found wasn’t surprising in that they found that younger people use cellular data the most. They also found that Hispanics are the largest data users among various ethnic groups.

Here are the average monthly usage by age:

‘                      Cell Data         WiFi Data

18 – 24            3.2 GB            14.1 GB

25 – 34            3.6 GB            11.2 GB

35 – 44            2.9 GB              9.3 GB

45 – 54            2.1 GB              7.5 GB

55 – 64            1.4 GB              6.4 GB

65+                  0.9 GB              4.8 GB

This study quantifies a lot of things that we already knew about cellular usage. We know, for example, that younger people use their cellphones to watch video more than older people. I have anecdotal evidence of that by watching my 17-year old. If she’s representative of her age group then they are using cellular data even more than the 18-24 year olds. They communicate with pictures and videos where older generations use email, chat, and text messaging.

These numbers also show that most people are not yet using their cellphones as a substitute for landline data usage. Certainly there are many individuals for whom the cellphone is their only source for data, but these numbers show average cellphone data usage far below average landline usage. I have a number of clients that track landline customer data usage and most of them are reporting average monthly downloads somewhere between 100 GB and 150 GB per household. Comcast recently reported that their 6-month rolling median data usage is 75 GB – meaning half of their customers use less than that, and half use more. All of the numbers in the above charts, while representing individuals and not families, are still far below those numbers.

Nielsen also tracked data usage by ethnicity, as follows:

‘                                  Cell Data        WiFi Data

Hispanic                       3.8 GB          10.1 GB

Native American         3.5 GB            7.3 GB

African-American        3.3 GB            9.1 GB

Asian                            2.3 GB            9.9 GB

White                           2.2 GB             8.6 GB

This shows that Hispanics, on average, are the largest users of data, both cellular and WiFi. Whites are at the bottom of the average usage chart.

Nielsen also was able to look into usage by geography. They didn’t publish all of the results, but did provide some interesting statistics. For example, they have some strong evidence now that cities with widespread WiFi networks can save customers money on their cellphone plans. For example, New York City has a lot of public WiFi and users in the city use WiFi 14% more than the national average while using cellular data 12% less. Contrast this with a city like Los Angeles with little public WiFi, and citizens there use WiFi 9% less than the national average and use cellular data 13% more. This kind of study can provide the basis for a city to quantify the benefits to the public for building a public WiFi network.

Some Relief for WiFi?

Wi-FiThe FCC is currently considering a proposal by Globalstar to open up a fourth and private WiFi channel. It looks like the vote is going to be close with Commissioners Rosenworcel and Pai saying they oppose the idea.

Globalstar, based in Covington, Louisiana, is a provider of satellite-based telephone systems, but has been dwarfed in that part of the industry by the much larger Iridium. Globalstar was awarded a swath of spectrum in the high 2.4 GHz bandwidth to use for its satellite phones. The Globalstar bandwidth sits next to the part of the WiFi spectrum used for Bluetooth – but there is such a small amount of satellite phone usage that interference has never been an issue.

Globalstar made a proposal to make their spectrum available for WiFi, but with the twist that the want their slice of spectrum to be private and licensed by them. This differs from the rest of the WiFi spectrum that is free and open for anybody to use. Globalstar argues that allowing some large users, such as AT&T, to use their spectrum will take a lot of the pressure off of existing WiFi.

There are places today where WiFi interference is noticeable, and it is likely to get worse. Cisco projects that the amount of data carried by WiFi will triple in the next three years – a growth rate 50% greater than data usage overall. There is expected to be a lot of demand put onto WiFi from the Internet of Things. And the cellular companies have a proposal called LTE-U that would let them dip into the WiFi spectrum for cellular data.

But as might be imagined there is a lot of opposition to the Globalstar plan. One of the major objections is that this would be a private use of the spectrum while the rest of the WiFi is available to everybody. Globalstar could license this to a handful of companies and give them an advantage over other WiFi users by giving them access to a largely empty swath of spectrum that wouldn’t have many users. Having a few companies willing to pay the price for Globalstar’s spectrum flies against the whole concept of making WiFi available to everybody.

But the primary concern about the idea is that it will cause interference with existing WiFi. Today the normal WiFi antennas used to send and receive data are not very expensive, and they routinely broadcast signals outside of the range of the narrow WiFi channels. This creates a condition called adjacent channel interference where WiFi interferes with adjacent bands of spectrum. The FCC has handled this by creating buffers around each WiFi channel that allows for the bleed-over signals.

The Globalstar spectrum sits in one of those adjacent buffer zones and critics say that heavy use of the Globalstar spectrum would directly then interfere with existing WiFi that already bleeds into the Globalstar spectrum. In general it’s never been a good idea to place two heavily used slices of spectrum next to each other without buffers, and the proposal would jam Globalstar spectrum next to existing WiFi. On the other side of the Globalstar spectrum is the part of WiFi reserved for Bluetooth, and again use of the spectrum would eliminate any buffer.

The opponents to the idea have been very vocal. They don’t think the FCC should allow for the risk that Globalstar will create a clear channel for a few carriers while interfering with everybody else trying to use WiFI. The industry as a whole says this is an overall losing idea.

The issue has been in front of the FCC for a few years and looks like it will come to a vote soon. Chairman Wheeler is for the Globalstar plan with two other Commissioners already against it. It will be up to the final two commissioners to decide if this is a go or not.

 

The Death of 2.4 GHz WiFi?

Wi-FiIt’s been apparent for a few years that the 2.4 GHz band of WiFi is getting more crowded. The very thing that has made the spectrum so useful – the fact that it allows multiple users to share the spectrum at the same time – is now starting to make the spectrum unusable in a lot of situations.

Earlier this year Apple and Cisco issued a joint paper on best network practices for enterprises and said that “the use of the 2.4 GHz band is not considered suitable for use for any business and/or mission critical enterprise applications.” They recommend that businesses avoid the spectrum and instead use the 5 GHz spectrum band.

There are a number of problems with the spectrum. In 2014 the Wi-Fi Alliance said there were over 10 billion WiFi-enabled devices in the world with 2.3 billion new devices shipping each year. And big plans to use WiFi to connect IoT devices means that the number of new devices is going to continue to grow rapidly.

And while most of the devices sold today can work with both the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz spectrum, a huge percentage of devices are set to default to several channels of the 2.4 GHz spectrum. This is done so that the devices will work with older WiFi routers, but it ends up creating a huge pile of demand in only part of the spectrum. Many devices can be reset to other channels or to 5 GHz, but the average user doesn’t know how to make the change.

There is no doubt that the spectrum can get full. I was in St. Petersburg, Florida this past weekend and at one point I saw over twenty WiFi networks, all contending for the spectrum. The standard allows that each user on each of these networks will get a little slice of available bandwidth, which leads to the degradation of everyone using it in a local neighborhood. And in addition to those many networks I am sure there were many other devices trying to use the spectrum. The WiFi spectrum band is also filled with uses by Bluetooth devices, signals from video cameras and is one of the primary bands of interference emitted by microwave ovens.

We are an increasingly wireless society. It was only a decade or so ago where people were still wiring new homes with Category 5 cable so that the whole house could get broadband. But we’ve basically dropped the wires in favor of connecting everything through a few channels of WiFi. For those that in crowded areas like apartments, dorms, or within businesses, the sheer number of WiFi devices within a small area can be overwhelming.

I’m not sure there is any really good long-term solution. Right now there is a lot less contention in the 5 GHz band, but one can imagine that in less than a decade that it will also be just as full as the 2.5 GHz spectrum today. We just started using the 5 GHz spectrum in our home network and saw a noticeable improvement. But soon everybody will be using it as much as the 2.4 GHz spectrum. Certainly the FCC can put bandaids on WiFi by opening up new swaths of spectrum for public use. But each new band of spectrum used is going to quickly get filled.

The FCC is very aware of the issues with 2.4 GHz spectrum and several of the Commissioners are pushing for the use of 5.9 GHz spectrum as a new option for public spectrum. But this spectrum which has been called dedicated short-range communications service (DSRC) was set aside in 1999 for use by smart vehicles to communicate with each other to avoid collisions. Until recently the spectrum has barely been used, but with the rapid growth of driverless cars we are finally going to see a big demand for the spectrum – and one that we don’t want to muck up with other devices. I, for one, do not want my self-driving car to have to be competing for spectrum with smartphones and IoT sensors in order to make sure I don’t hit another car.

The FCC has a big challenge in front of them now because as busy as WiFi is today it could be vastly more in demand decades from now. At some point we may have to face the fact that there is just not enough spectrum that can be used openly by everybody – but when that happens we could stop seeing the amazing growth of technologies and developments that have been enabled by free public spectrum.

New WiFi Technologies

Wi-FiThere are some interesting breakthroughs coming out in WiFi that will change how we use the frequency.

First, a group of student engineers at the University of Washington have released a report that may enable the use of WiFi as the primary method of communicating with Internet of Things devices.

The primary shortcoming of current WiFi technology for IoT is that it is power-hungry. A typical current WiFi transmission between two devices requires a radio at both ends of the transmission path along with a baseband chip that is used to encode the data onto the radio wave. Because the WiFi spectrum is expected to always be busy and have interference, the typical WiFi transmission requires several hundreds of milliwatts of power at each end of the transmission path in order to have a strong enough signal to distinguish it from the background noise from other WiFi signals. And that means that a typical WiFi router is a big user of power in a home.

It is the need for big power that has made it impractical to consider WiFi as the technology for talking to large numbers of tiny IoT sensors in the environment. There is no practical way to power such devices.

The student engineers invented a new type of hardware that uses 10,000 times less power than a traditional WiFi device. They are calling the technology ‘passive WiFi’. The technology uses only one WiFi router in the system that send out signals to the many IoT sensors. Those sensors then mirror the signal back to the transmitting device. In doing so the sensors transmit their current status back to the original router using almost no power – 10 to 50 microwatts. The technique involved takes advantage of what is called frequency backscatter and the whole process uses only a fraction of the full WiFi spectrum.

This technique has a lot of promise. Up until now the best option for talking to small sensors has been Bluetooth. But WiFi spectrum is almost 1,000 times more efficient than Bluetooth and also can include security features that aren’t possible with Bluetooth.

In another breakthrough, Samsung has developed WiFi that can deliver up to 4.6 gigabit speeds using the 60 GHz spectrum. This is the spectrum that is often referred to as millimeter wave radio. Samsung’s breakthrough not only takes advantage of this higher frequency, but the company has also made a breakthrough that allows a data transfer rate that is almost 10 times faster than current WiFi.

This technology means that soon we will have to talk differently about different pieces of the WiFi spectrum. The term ‘WiFi’ is a set of standards that can be applied to many different slices of frequency, but different frequencies have very different operating characteristics.

The 60 GHz frequency cannot pass through walls or almost anything else, and that means that it is going to be used to make very fast wireless data connections within a room. Further, this frequency dissipates very quickly with distance and its effective range is only a few meters, meaning that this frequency will not be usable for outdoor hotspots. It’s a one-room application only. This technology presupposes that a room utilizing it will be connected to fiber.

The antenna array needed for 60 GHz is very different than that used for traditional WiFi and so I am expecting it will be many years before we see too many devices designed to use both regular WiFi and 60 GHz spectrum. It’s more likely until the higher spectrum is widely used that there will be a dongle receiver that you could connect to a laptop or other device.

I would expect the early market for this technology to be applications that need a lot of bandwidth but that don’t lend themselves easily to running fiber. That might mean future virtual reality or augmented reality headsets and systems, factory floors to connect to equipment or in crowded hospital emergency rooms. There are not that many applications today that need more bandwidth than can be supplied by normal WIFi, so expect this to be initially used for those applications that do. But over time there will be more and more real world applications that need more bandwidth and this will be another tool to deliver bandwidth over short distance.

Are Americans Abandoning Wireline Data?

Copper CableA study conducted for the Commerce Department by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that there has been an increase in households that have mobile data as their only source of broadband. Certainly this huge survey that got 53,000 responses must be considered as statistically valid. One thing the survey showed is that broadband has become a commodity and more people than ever before have some sort of broadband.

The survey also showed that having landline broadband is tied to household income. Nearly one third of households that make under $25,000 per year have mobile data as their only broadband product. And that is up from 16% of these households in 2013. This must be a function of affordability and it’s not hard to see how lower income homes can’t afford both smartphones and landline broadband.

But the survey showed other trends that were a surprise. The survey shows that 18% of homes making between $50,000 per year and $75,000 per year have mobile-only data, a huge jump upward from 8% in 2013. And 17% of homes making between $75,000 and $100,000 are now mobile-only, another big jump up from 8% in 2013. The survey showed that even 15% of homes making more than $100,000 have gone to mobile-only data, another big increase from 6% in 2013.

But there are other industry statistics that don’t seem to jive with these numbers. All of the publicly traded ISPs routinely report customer counts and for 2015, as a whole, the industry showed a net increase of over 3 million new landline broadband connections last year. Industry analysts are expecting almost the same increase for the whole ISP industry in 2016. With about 125 million total households in the country that will mean that nearly 5% more of total households will have added landline broadband in 2015 and 2016. That huge increase in landline data connections seems to contradict the survey numbers.

Certainly there must be many people (particularly in urban areas) that can get by without a landline data connection. In cities there is more and more WiFi available. People have WiFi at work and more and more businesses in the city provide it as a convenience to their customers. And there are plenty of people living in tightly packed apartments that share a WiFi connection with a nearby neighbor.

But it’s hard to think this can account for the huge shift shown by the survey. If the survey is correct, then as many as 10% of all homes have abandoned a landline data connection since 2013 – over 12 million homes – and the industry numbers just don’t back that up.

Certainly any big user of data at home must have a landline connection. Nobody is going to use mobile data for watching video or playing online games. Nobody is even going to use mobile data for any serious amount of school work or for taking work home from the office. The small data caps make that far too expensive.

Our big cellular companies have priced mobile data to be among the most expensive broadband in the world when measured as cost per downloaded gigabit. Nobody who uses any significant data is going to use data that is as much as 100 times more expensive as a landline data connection unless they have no choice. There are certainly plenty of households in rural areas who use their cellular data connection as the only source of broadband. They use it very sparingly and still report getting huge monthly bills for mobile data.

I have no idea how to reconcile these two very different set of facts. We know the number of landline data connections that ISPs sell and that number tells a very different story than this survey. And while it’s anecdotal, I can’t think of one of my hundreds of clients who is not seeing annual increases in landline data customers.

But this survey asked the question to 53,000 respondents, and in the world of statistics this means the information received from the survey should be extremely believable. The survey results would be very suspect if the questions were misleading or if the survey was not administered randomly. But I would think that an organization like the Census would have been careful to have gotten these things right. This difference between these two sets of facts is a puzzle and I am sure that over time that the trend will become clear – whatever it is. But for now I am very skeptical of the survey results until they have been collaborated with other data.