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Current News Regulation - What is it Good For?

WiFi Blocking

Wi-FiThe FCC recently ruled against Marriott for blocking customers’ access to WiFi generated by the cellphones. Guests who tried to use their own WiFi were deauthenticated so that the only WiFi option available was to use the one sold by the hotel, for a hefty daily fee. The Marriott Wifi engineers testified that they had done this to protect against interference to their own WiFi networks for paying customers. But the FCC ruled against Marriott and told them to stop blocking customers.

My gut feeling is that Marriott was doing this for the money, because they must have gotten a ton of customer complaints and it’s hard to think that they continued to back their IT engineers over the public. But as the FCC ruling made clear, it didn’t really matter why Marriott did it. There is no valid reason to block WiFi.

What Marriott failed to realize is that WiFi is truly a public spectrum. And while it is open to everybody, it also comes with some rules about how the public is allowed to use it. The FCC spectrum rules are clear on this, but I suspect that even many industry people have never read them. Certainly the manufacturers of WiFi devices don’t educate their customers very much about the obligations of using the spectrum.

The following portions of the FCC rules, although written in tech-speak, sum up the WiFi obligations:

§15.5   General conditions of operation.

(a) Persons operating intentional or unintentional radiators shall not be deemed to have any vested or recognizable right to continued use of any given frequency by virtue of prior registration or certification of equipment, or, for power line carrier systems, on the basis of prior notification of use pursuant to §90.35(g) of this chapter.

(b) Operation of an intentional, unintentional, or incidental radiator is subject to the conditions that no harmful interference is caused and that interference must be accepted that may be caused by the operation of an authorized radio station, by another intentional or unintentional radiator, by industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) equipment, or by an incidental radiator.

What these rules mean are that nobody has any more right to use the WiFi than anybody else. It does not matter if you are the first one using the spectrum in an area – everybody else has the right to use the spectrum in that same area as well. Further, you are allowed to use spectrum as long as you don’t harm other users, with the caveat that lawful interference must be accepted. With most licensed spectrum bands no interference is allowed. But WiFi, by its very definition as a public spectrum, can have mountains of interference and still be operating within the law. So when the rules say that you can’t cause harmful interference, this is interpreted for WiFi to mean that you can’t somehow stop others from using the spectrum – but that normal interference with WiFi is perfectly lawful and expected.

The Marriott engineers also tried to argue that deauthentication is not the same thing as interference. The system they were using repeatedly sent out signals that stopped WiFi users from staying connected to their cellular WiFi networks. Marriott says they weren’t blocking the spectrum, just the use of the spectrum, a very fine distinction that the FCC also didn’t buy.

And so the Marriott engineers were wrong about a few very basic rules of spectrum usage. They had no more right to the WiFi spectrum inside the hotel than any of their customers. And it doesn’t matter if customer use of WiFi from cellphones interferes with Marriott WiFi, since the cellphone WiFi is lawful and the interference is legally acceptable.

This is a caution to anybody who wants to use WiFi in a commercial application. Whether you are a wireless ISP (WISP), a hospital, an airport, or a coffee shop, you have no more right to the spectrum than anybody else. Again, this is something that the makers of WiFi equipment don’t tell their customers, or at least not outside of the very small print. If you really need interferences free transmissions, you ought to be looking for a different spectrum to use. There are absolutely no guarantees with WiFi, regardless of what the claims of the vendor who sold you your gear.

There have been several attempts over the years to build large public outdoor WiFi networks. Almost by definition these networks are going to fail, or at least perform incredibly poorly in some places. Such networks have to compete against every home router, public hotspot and other uses of the spectrum in the same area. Further, like cellular networks, WiFi networks can become overloaded with too many simultaneous users.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days when the 900 MHz spectrum got overloaded. This is are also free public spectrum and it was originally used for everything from cordless phones to garage door openers. It got so overloaded that eventually you couldn’t hold a 900 MHz phone connection long enough to finish a call. Because it seems like everybody has a plan to use WiFi that the day might come whenthis spectrum will also get overloaded in some places. And the only real solution for this will be for the FCC to provide more public spectrum. Because WiFi interference is lawful and expected, as much as users might hate it.

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The Industry

Cable Banking on WiFI

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the massive effort that cable companies are putting into expanding their WiFi networks. It’s estimated that Comcast and Cablevision together now have almost 9 million public hotspots, most of which come from dual routers in subscribers homes that provide a hotspot link along with the subscriber’s link. There are about another 1.5 million hotspots deployed by Cox, Time Warner and Bright House.

At this point nobody is quite sure how the cable companies are going to monetize this business. Several years ago some standards were developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to create interoperability between WiFi networks and cellular networks. The idea was to allow cellular companies to offload overflow cellular traffic onto commercial WiFi networks when their cell sites get too busy.

But there are still changes needed in the industry for this to take place. First, a lot more phones need to be enabled to make calls on WiFi, a feature that is now included on the IPhone, but which few people have enabled. Probably the most important thing still lacking is the brains in the networks that will allow easy WiFi roaming so that a call or data transmission can be handed from one WiFi hotspot to another without needing a new verification and login and without restarting a given transmission. Until WiFi roams smoothly you won’t be able to continue a WiFi voice call without being cut off every time you change to a new hotspot. This might not be solved until the whole cellular network moves into the cloud using software defined networking so that the brains that are behind the handoffs of cellular calls can be applied to other types of connections.

But in high traffic areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, WiFi certainly can relieve the data traffic on cellular networks. But are the cellular companies really willing to pay for this? Already today WiFi is carrying a lot of data for cellular-enabled devices for free (to the cellular companies). Adobe published statistics recently that show that 93% of data on tablets and 43% of data on smartphones is carried by WiFi. But one would have to think that the vast majority of this is done in people’s homes and offices where they spend most of their time.

There is no doubt that having somebody else carry their data traffic is a benefit to cellular companies, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be willing to write checks to WiFi hotspot owners for carrying cellular data. There has been no news of Comcast or the other cable companies making such deals with cellular companies, and so one would think this application is mostly speculation.

One also has to wonder about the efficacy of the current cable hotspots. The majority of Comcast hotspots are going to come from home routers that have been equipped to provide a public WiFi connection as well as the in-home connection for customers. But how useful are these connections? If you’ve ever walked around outside your house looking to connect to your own WiFi network I think you understand that reception outside of your home is sketchy. There are places where the signal is clear, areas where it is poor and areas where it doesn’t exist.

I look at my own house and wonder how valuable it is for Comcast to enable my hotspot. I get joggers and dog walkers by here on the front sidewalk, but otherwise this is not a neighborhood with much foot traffic. The only circumstances where my WiFi might have value is if workmen at my house use it, or if one of my immediate neighbors obtains a Comcast password from somebody and uses my WiFi for free. Otherwise, somebody would need to sit on my front porch or park in my driveway to get WiFi, something I would frown greatly upon.

There are a few ways that Comcast can monetize WiFi. One is to sell roaming WiFi as a service, much like you get in an airport. But to sell that service requires large areas of good coverage. And there are places like that. For example, it’s been reported that Comcast has blanketed the Jersey shore with coverage, and so selling a data connection to non-Comcast customers in these kinds of areas is a possibility.

I think the best business opportunity is for Comcast to get into the cellular business using WiFi enabled phones. They could sell cellular plans that either use only WiFi, or that use WiFi first and use cellular as the back-up. A lot of people mostly use their cellphones in homes and offices and such callers could save a lot of money if Comcast prices it right. Assuming that they could strike a deal with one of the four major spectrum holders they ought to be able to undercut the major carrier’s prices and still be profitable with such products.

But nobody knows for sure why Comcast and the other cable companies are doing this because they haven’t said. They must have something in mind, because they are spending a lot of money on public hotspots. One would certainly hope that Comcast has something in mind since they are antagonizing their cable modem customers yet again by turning them into public hotspots without their permission.

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Current News The Industry

Living Within Our Data Caps

An interesting thing happened to the wireless carriers on their trip to bring us 4G. They warned us repeatedly that we could expect issues as they upgraded their networks, and they forced us onto skinny data plans of a few gigabits of data so that most of us have learned to use WiFi with our cellphones rather than spend a fortune with the cellphone provider.

But maybe the wireless carriers have gone too far. Adobe Systems reported last week that that more than half of all data from cell phones is now using WiFi instead of 3G or 4G. Total WiFi traffic from mobile passed data directly on the wireless networks more than a year ago. This has to be troubling to AT&T and Verizon because their business plans rely on consumers using the faster 4G LTE networks. They have made huge investments over the last few years in increasing data speeds and that is the basis of all of their advertising.

So perhaps the tactic of imposing small data caps has backfired on them. They are not seeing their new expensive networks used nearly as much as they counted on, and this is limiting their ability to monetize the expensive upgrades. I know that I personally am very happy buying a 2 gigabit monthly cap and I only use cellphones data for directions while driving or when I have no other choice when traveling. I would never consider watching a video on my phone when I’m not at home. Apparently there are a lot of people like me in the world.

When AT&T and Verizon realized that people weren’t using as much data as they had hoped for they both got into the tablet business hoping that it would boost the use of their 4G LTE data. They have been bundling tablets into plans and even selling them below cost as a way to drive more data usage on their networks. But that move has also backfired and I saw a report that estimated that 93% of tablet data usage is using WiFi instead of the LTE network.

The WiFi trend is only going to get worse for the carriers as Hotspot 2.0 rolls out. That is the new WiFi standard that is going to let cellphones and other devices easily and automatically log into public hotspots without going through today’s annoying process of having to log onto each new network. With Hotspot 2.0 you can be pre-certified to join any WiFi router that is part of that network. So as you walk down the street in a business district you might long onto numerous different WiFi routers as you walk by them – while staying off the LTE network.

The precursors for Hotspot 2.0 are already in the market today. I know that once I have logged in once with my cellphone to any AT&T or Comcast hotspot that my phone doesn’t ask my permission whenever I come into range of another of their hotspots and just automatically connects me.

It’s been reported that the wireless carriers have had pretty good success getting families to upgrade to monthly 10 GB deluxe plans. But what they didn’t count on is how so many people are being careful to stay within their plan to avoid getting hit with charges for extra data.

It’s been reported that both AT&T and Verizon have invested heavily in the Internet of Things and they are touting 4G connectivity as the best way to connect for a wide range of devices from wireless utility meters to animal-tracking collars. But a lot of the IoT devices in the world are going to be inside of homes and businesses where an LTE connection is often not as good as a signal from an inside-the-home WiFi router. The fact is that any outdoor radio broadcast signal is going to vary with factors like weather, temperature and the amount of the spectrum being used by others. This often makes LTE less reliable locally than a solid WiFi signal.

It will be interesting to see how the wireless carriers react to this. They have spent many billions upgrading their wireless networks and are not seeing the kind of revenue they expected from that effort. This might make them more cautious about leaping in to make the next big network upgrade, which seems to be needed every few years. It’s possible that they will expand their network more through mini-cell sites to make their signal stronger where people live as a way to make it more usable. The one thing they are unlikely to do, at least for a while is to give customers more data in the base wireless plans. They are likely to stick with the incremental data usage plans in place today.

One place the wireless carriers are counting on is in the connected car industry since that is one market where WiFi is not a real alternative. It is expected that every new car will come with data connectivity and that the amount of data used by each car will climb over time as more and more apps are included with cars. Expect them to be selling tens of millions of small monthly data plans to car owners as a way to make up for us all avoiding their expensive data on our cellphones. But even in that market they are competing against the smartphone which can handle all of the functions promised for the 4G functionality that is part of the smart car. I know I would rather get driving directions as part of my existing cellphone plan than buy a second data plan for my car.

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Current News Technology

Maybe Finally a Faster WiFi

The first wave of 802.11ac WiFi routers are starting to show up in use and already there is something faster on the horizon. IEEE has announced that they are starting to work on a new standard named 802.11ax and it looks like the new standard might be able to deliver on some of the hype and promises that were mistakenly made about 802.11ac. This new standard probably is not going to be released until 2018.

I call it unfortunate because 802.11ac has widely been referred to as gigabit WiFi but it is not even close to that. In the real world application of the technology it’s been reported that the ac routers can improve performance over today’s 802.11n routers by between 50% and 100%. That is a significant improvement and it is shame that the marketing hype of the companies that push the technology has created an unfulfillable expectation for these routers. I refer you to my earlier blog that compares the reality to the hype.

The gigabit name given to 802.11ac has more to do with the increased capacity of the router to handle large bandwidth than it did with the connection speeds to any given device. But the 802.11ax standard is going to turns its attention to increasing the connections to users. The early goal of the new standard is to increase bandwidth to devices by as much as 4 times over what can be delivered with 802.11ac.

This improvement is going to come through the use of MIMO-OFDA. MIMO is multiple input – multiple output and refers to a system that has multiple antennas in the router. Devices can also have multiple antennas although that’s not required. OFDA stands for orthogonal frequency division multiplexing and is a standard used in 4G wireless networks today

The combination of those two techniques means that more bits can be forced through a single connection to one device using a single receiving antenna. Making each individual connections from the router more efficient will improve the overall efficiency of the base router.

Interestingly, Huawei is already using these techniques in the lab and they are experiencing raw data rates as fast as 10 gigabits from a router. Huawei is one of the leaders of the 802.11ax standards process and they don’t believe these routers will be market ready until at least 2018

What I find most puzzling in today’s environment is that a lot of vendors have bought hook, line and sinker into the 802.11ac hype . For example, it’s been reported that a number of FTTH vendors and settop box vendors are touting the use of 802.11ac instead of cabling to route TV signals around a home. This might work for single family homes on large lots where there won’t be a lot of interference, but I can foresee many situations where this is going to be a challenge

Certainly there is a lot of chance for interference when you try to do this in an urban environment where living units are crammed a lot closer together. I highlighted some of the forms of WiFi interference in another earlier blog. But there are always other situations where WiFi will not be a great solution for transmitting cable signals between multiple sets. For example, there are plenty of older homes built in the fifties or earlier that have plaster walls with wire mesh lathe which can stop a WiFi signal dead. And there are homes that are larger than the range of the WiFi signal when considering walls and impediments.

But it looks like the 802.11ax standard will finally create enough bandwidth to individual devices to enable WiFi as a reliable alternate to cabling within a house. My fear is that there are going to be so many cases where 802.11ac is a problem that WiFi is going to get a bad name before then. I fear the vendors who are relying on WiFi instead of wires might have been a generation too premature. I hope I’m wrong, but 802.11ac does not look to be enough of an improvement over our current WiFi that it can act as a reliable alternative to wires.

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Current News

The FCC Grants More Wireless Spectrum

In several actions on Monday the FCC granted for wireless spectrum for use as WiFi and cellular data.

In the WiFi arena the FCC freed up three new bands of spectrum for use as WiFi. The specific bands that are now available to the public include spectrum between 5470 – 5725 MHz and another band between 5725 – 5850 MHz. These two bits of spectrum were already surrounded by other WiFi spectrum and were referred to in the past as WiFi potholes. This now creates a continuous band between 5150 – 5250 MHz.

The two new bands are together 75 MHz of new WiFi spectrum and begin the process the Commission started in 2010 in the National Broadband Plan Order, when they said that they would find 500 new MHz of public spectrum.

Of course, there are not devices on the market capable of utilizing these two pieces of spectrum immediately, but one would expect that devices shipped fairly soon will have the capacity. Because these two pieces of spectrum were islands within a larger band of WiFi spectrum it will be easier to include them than it was to exclude them. These new pieces of spectrum will make it that much easier to use our insatiable use of WiFi for cellular offload and other mobile computing needs like watching video.

The FCC also announced that there will be an auction for new bandwidth that will be available to cellular carriers for 4G wireless. The three bands exist between 1695 – 1710 MHz, 1755 – 1780 MHz and 2155 – 2180 MHz. The FCC labeled this new spectrum as Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS-3)

There is a catch, though with these spectrum in that any cellular company that uses it has to share it with existing government wireless systems. Nationwide there are over 3,100 registered uses in this spectrum that range from the Department of Homeland Security for border surveillance to the US Army for tactical communication. The FCC is not planning to move most of these uses out of the spectrum but will instead expect any carrier that buys the spectrum to somehow coexist with the existing uses.

The major wireless carriers aren’t nuts about the idea but have agreed to run tests to see how they might share the frequency with the government. Obviously they would not share networks, but in areas of contention each would have authorized use of the spectrum somehow. Obviously the wireless carriers would love the spectrum cleared for their exclusive use, and there will be many markets where the spectrum is clear or mostly clear.

The FCC announced that it is going to auction off this spectrum in a mixture of large and small blocks, and in large and small geographic areas. They hope this will entice smaller regional carriers to go after spectrum for use in rural markets. They plan on auction rules that give an edge in these small markets to the small carriers plus T-Mobile. The proceeds from this auction are aimed at helping to pay for FirstNet, the nationwide emergency response network. Let’s just hope that by requiring bandwidth sharing that the big carriers show up and bid. They don’t always do so as evidence by the last auction where the only bidder was Dish Networks at the required minimum bid.

Certainly these announcements are good news for anybody with a cell phone, and having additional WiFi spectrum is going to make us that much more ready for the Internet of Things. As a country we have an insatiable demand for wireless spectrum and this is one more step towards making enough spectrum available to keep us humming along.

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What Customers Want

Hot Spot 2.0

Hot Spot 2.0 is the name used by an effort to link WiFi networks together to make it easier for people to get WiFi when they are not at home. Anybody who travels understands the incredible hassle of constantly looking for hot spots, figuring out how to connect to them and then doing it over and over as you move around.

The goal of Hot Spot 2.0 is to make it as easy to use WiFi as it is to use your cell phone when you step off an airplane. Your smartphone automatically finds a compatible cellular data network and begins downloading emails as soon as you are on the runway. By the time you walk into the terminal you up and running.

There are several different aspects that need to come together to make this work. First is a set of standards, and that process is already underway. The concept is being developed by the WiFi Alliance and they are using the trademarked name of ‘Passpoint’ to certify the hardware and software involved in the process. The first set of standards were released in June 2012 and further releases are in the development pipeline. The first release covered the basics that include automating network discovery, authentication and security.

Next is hardware and software systems that will support the standard. There are already companies like Ruckus that are working on solutions you can buy. A network that implements this is going to have to be able to recognize users trying to connect with the protocol and then be able to authenticate users automatically.

Finally is selling the idea to users. It’s a no brainer to sell this to people who travel a lot, but the goal will be to get this out to all of your customers who wants the ease of being connected to WiFi whenever it’s available. With the data caps on cell phones this is a no brainer for smart phone users, but can be valuable to people with tablets and laptops as well.

One can imagine that as more and more carriers get on board with the concept that a large nationwide associations of networks will grow. There is already talk of creating WiFi roaming arrangements that will let your customers use Hot Spot 2.0 on your network or any other network with which you have an arrangement. As big consortiums are created the value of this to customers will grow. Roaming might even become a source of revenue if you have a network that entertains a lot of visitors.

But there is merit in implementing this on your own network. This product brings a valuable service to customers who are willing to pay for this. Or you might bundle it in with anybody who buys one of your landline data products. Customers will love the mobility aspect of being connected automatically to WiFi as they move around their home town. And this gives you a good reason to sell more hot spots to businesses in the town so that they can be part of this network.

Cities often talk about the goal of being wired, and mobile data is a huge component of that concept. If a City has enough hot spots then they have enabled cheap broadband access to anybody with a cell phone, tablet or laptop. This could finally be the solution to the digital divide since this could enable broadband for even the poorest among us. Get them a Hot Spot 2.0 capable device and they will have broadband at many locations around town.

This effort certainly has potential and should have legs because of the gigantic number of smartphone users that can benefit by automatically connecting to WiFi when it is available. And I know carriers are thinking about this. When I signed up for my new Comcast data service in November the terms of service included a caveat that my broadband connection might be shared with other users. That was something new that I had never seen before and I think Comcast is preparing for the day soon when every one of their data users is also a Hot Spot 2.0 site. That creates a huge network from the moment it is activated.

Only now, instead of yelling at kids to get off my lawn I will be yelling at them to get out of my WiFi!

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Improving Your Business Technology What Customers Want

Should you Build a WiFi Network?

Free Wireless (WiFi) Minneapolis Hotspot in Sumner Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For years I have had clients who have been building WiFi networks and then trying to figure out ways to make money with them. For the first time I think there is now enough opportunity to sufficiently monetize a WiFi network to make it look like a good investment. The following are some of the ways that other carriers are making money from WiFi. A good business plan will probably need to combine several of these together to make a viable business.

Cellular Data Upload. The biggest use of WiFi is becoming the uploading of cellular data to the network. Most cellular carriers sell data plans with low caps and they want and expect their customers to use WiFi to keep data traffic off the cellular networks. In most places the cellular networks are not nearly robust enough to handle all of the data they would need to carry if it wasn’t for WiFi. There are two different possible ways to monetize this.

If your service area has enough customers of one or more of the major cellular companies, the carriers might be interested in buying wholesale access into your WiFi network. This is something that is happening in big cities, and in many places the cellular carriers are deploying the WiFi directly. But there are now a number of markets where cellular carriers are buying bulk WiFi access from other carriers.

However, deals with cellular carriers are not yet something that has been commoditized, and the alternate plan is to sell data plans directly to cellular customers in your town for their smart phones. Many cellular customers already have WiFi in their homes, but with a city-wide WiFi network they could then get the WiFi benefits anywhere in town. Statistics say that 85% of cellular data is used in the home territory and you can sell data for less than the cellular carriers and make good money at it.

MVNO Wireless. Even better than selling cellular data to others is consider offering your own wireless plans using an MVNO. In this scenario you buy bulk cellular minutes, text messaging and cellular data and then package them your own cellular plans. If you have a city-wide WiFi network you have a big advantage because you can make sure that your cellular customers use your network for both voice and data when that is possible. This means that you can charge them cellular-level pricing for traffic that you are delivering at landline costs. The margins on MVNO wireless are already decent, but combining it with a robust WiFi network really enhances the bottom line.

Broadband Alternative. There are now a significant number of customers who don’t want traditional broadband delivered by wireline. In addition to smartphone users, there are many customers who now use pads and laptops instead of traditional PCs. So you can sell WiFi business plans as an alternative or as an adjunct to your existing data plans. WiFi-only plans can be priced similarly to traditional low-level landline plans and you might sell a ‘portability’ additive plan to your normal landline data customers. Finally, you can sell hourly, daily and weekly WiFi to visitors or occasional users.

VoIP / Local Only Phone. In every market there are customers who almost never leave town and with a WiFi network you can give them a much lower cost portable phone alternative than using a traditional cellphone carrier. This essentially is a cordless phone that will go anywhere in the town. You also can use WiFi to give local phones to kids and others for low prices, saving parents the cost of pricey cellular family plans.

Public Safety. Most towns and cities would be interested in using your network for public safety and public works. With a citywide WiFi network you can give all city employees access to data anywhere in town, making it easier for police and fire to operate using pads but also improving the productivity for inspectors and other city workers who are mobile in the town. You should be able to sell bulk access to the city and local utilities, particularly if you will arrange a QOS arrangement to give public safety a priority for the network when they need it.

Workforce Needs. And of course, a city-wide WiFi network will also increase your own productivity since your own installers and salespeople can always be connected to the network with a pad or smartphone. This is not a revenue opportunity but rather can save you money.

There certainly some issues to consider and it would make sense to pre-sell to the larger WiFi users before you build the network. But if you can sign up a cellular carrier or the City government as anchor tenants then you can build knowing that these other revenues will materialize if the network is built with good coverage.

Like any business there are operational issues to consider. For instance you will want to insure that only people who are paying for your service use the network so you will want a secure system to validate users and be prepared to boot off customers who give away passwords to others.

From a technical and cost perspective it has never been easier to get into the WiFi business. The price of equipment has dropped and it has become more science and less art to keep the network functioning well.