Car makers clash with Congress over Wi-Fi

Congress wants U.S. regulators to hurry up and open a chunk of federal 5.9 GHz airwaves for commercial Wi-Fi, which would let more smartphones, tablets and laptops milk faster speeds out of wireless routers and hotspots. But the automotive industry, which has designs on the same frequencies, really wants the government to slow down.

The airwaves in question are part of a big spectrum package the White House wants to put to shared use, allowing government and military agencies and the private sector to split time over the airwaves. The Federal Communications itself has been searching for more spectral real estate for Wi-Fi. It seems that everyone is on the same page – well almost everyone.

Automakers plan to use one of those spectrum bands (5850-5925 MHz to be exact) for new automotive networks that would connect cars to each other on the highway and to roadside infrastructure, creating the first smart transportation grids. Talking vehicles could coordinate highway navigation, thereby preventing accidents and easing the flow traffic as well as bringing us one step closer to the autonomous car.

This kind of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, as its called, is another priority of the Obama Administration, but the automotive industry has asked the government to apply the brakes on the Wi-Fi plan until the proper safeguards are in place to make sure commercial and vehicle networks can play nice in the 5.9 GHz band. Backers of the plan, however, think the automakers are stalling, and they’ve gotten their representatives in Congress to apply a little political heat.

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) revived legislation from last session called the Wi-Fi Innovation Act, which sounds a lot more impressive than what the legislation would actually accomplish. Specifically the bill would require the FCC to “move swiftly” in conducting a feasibility study on the 5.9 GHz band while balancing the need of the automotive industry with those of commercial users. The bill also calls for a study on how Wi-Fi could be used in low-income areas for internet access. Representative Bob Latta (R-Ohio) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House.

Big automotive is not happy. AAA and all of the big car manufacturing lobbying groups sent a letter to Congressional bigwigs asking them to oppose the legislation. In a statement, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America said that the automotive and Wi-Fi industries are already working together to see if sharing in the 5.9 GHz band is feasible.

“This collaborative process should continue without Congressionally-imposed deadlines, restrictive parameters or political pressure that creates regulatory uncertainty and could delay bringing these life-saving crash prevention technologies to consumers,” ITS-America CEO and President Thomas Kern said.

But the automotive industry is pretty lonely in its stance. [company]Google[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company], the Consumer Electronics Association, [company]Comcast[/company] and [company]Time Warner Cable[/company] (through their wireless lobbying group WiFiForward), the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Telecom Industry Association and consumer advocates Public Knowledge all applauded the legislation.

Ericsson unleashes LTE over the Wi-Fi airwaves

Carriers are constantly on the hunt for more 4G spectrum, but the airwaves they need may be right under their noses. Mobile network builder Ericsson has developed a new technology that allows carriers to add Wi-Fi spectrum to their LTE networks, boosting overall capacity and the raw speeds available to our smartphones, tablets and mobile hotspots.

The technology is called License Assisted Access (LAA) and it’s been worked on by wireless networking companies across the mobile industry, but at CES on Monday [company]Ericsson[/company] said it has a version of its small cell in the pipeline that takes advantage of LAA. A small cell is basically a big tower-mounted cell in miniature, and they’re used to surgically insert more capacity the network. By adding LAA to small cells, carriers would be able to amp up data speeds to their customers in the most high-demand places, particularly indoors where most mobile data is consumed.

Small cells would add surgical capacity to the most high demand areas of the network (source: Gigaom / Rani Molla)

Small cells would add surgical capacity to the most high demand areas of the network (source: Gigaom / Rani Molla)

LAA makes use of another LTE technology we’ve been hearing more and more about overseas and at home: carrier aggregation, which bonds together LTE transmissions from different bands. Instead of gluing together two traditional LTE networks over licensed spectrum, LAA tops off the network with any 5GHz unlicensed frequencies that aren’t being used at any given moment.

Basically, LAA will make LTE function under the same principles as Wi-Fi today: Any network can use the airwaves — they just have to coordinate to avoid interfering for one another. That means an LAA small cell will constantly be scanning the unlicensed airwaves looking for free channels. When it finds one it sets up its 4G connection.

Of course, anyone who has ever been in a crowded Wi-Fi environment – for instance, a big tech show like CES – knows that those airwaves can quickly become overcrowded. That’s the inherent limitation of LAA, Ericsson’s head of LTE mobile broadband Eric Parsons explained: since carriers don’t have exclusive access to the unlicensed airwaves they’re never guaranteed any set level of bandwidth.

But Parsons pointed out that an LAA network would never be crippled the same way a Wi-Fi network would because it still has access to the carrier’s underlying LTE network on licensed airwaves.

Let’s use [company]T-Mobile[/company] as an example. Its regular LTE network in Dallas used 20 MHz of its own Advanced Wireless Service spectrum for downlink communications, supporting a theoretical speed of 150 Mbps. That baseline capacity would always be available to T-Mobile’s customers, but with LAA the small cell could add another 20 MHz of unlicensed frequencies to that downlink. Depending on how crowded those airwaves are with Wi-Fi at the moment that additional speed might be as little as few megabits per second, but it could be as great as 150 Mbps, effectively doubling the network’s capacity to 300 Mbps, Parsons said. The network will always serve its licensed airwaves up as a main course, but any additional capacity it gets from LAA will be gravy.

Mobilize 2012 Neville Ray T-Mobile

Neville Ray, CTO, T-Mobile, speaking at Gigaom’s Mobilize conference (c) 2012 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

T-Mobile isn’t just a convenient example, it’s also an active backer of the technology. In a blog post today, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said he plans to use LAA in his network designs once the technology matures. When that happens will be hard to say though. While Ericsson said its LAA small cell will be available for commercial network rollouts this year, the mobile industry still has to release mobile phones and devices that can tap these new LTE frequencies.

But once LAA comes, Ray pointed out, mobile carriers would have a powerful new toy to build raw speed into their networks. Look at it this way: They typical LTE network today uses 40 MHz of spectrum. The unlicensed bands have 550 MHz of usable frequencies.


Tech firms say schools need more spectrum

If President Obama really wants to put Wi-Fi in every U.S. classroom, then the government will need to release more unlicensed spectrum for public use — or so says WifiForward, a spectrum lobbying group backed by Google, Microsoft, the cable companies and the Consumer Electronics Association.

WifiForward prepared a paper this week that calls for regulators to open up or lift restrictions on big swathes of the 5 GHz band so it can be used to build bigger, badder gigabit Wi-Fi networks. It also calls for the government to open up more white space spectrum and move forward with its plans to create a shared public-private band at 3.5 GHz, which could be used to link those Wi-Fi networks to the internet proper without using wires or fiber.

Obama is pushing an ambitious plan called ConnectEd to link 99 percent of all U.S. schools with high-speed broadband, and many tech companies like Apple and Microsoft and carriers like AT&T and Verizon have signed on as partners, pledging money, services and equipment to the effort. But WifiForward claims that if the administration wants to ConnectEd right, it needs to think in terms of very fat pipes.

A school of 1,000 students and staff needs at least a 1 Gbps broadband link to ensure every pupil and teacher has access to a 1 Mbps connection, according to a study by the State Educational Technology Directors Association that the paper cited. By 2018, there will be an estimated 56.5 million K-12 students in the U.S., and they will need a combined 56.5 Tbps of bandwidth. Those kind of capacities will require more spectrum than available today, WifiForward claims.

Of course, opening up more unlicensed spectrum wouldn’t just benefit schools, since that new capacity would be available to any company, organization or consumer using a Wi-Fi router. Emphasizing schools is a good way to pull on the public’s heartstrings, but WifiForward’s arguments are still valid. Unlicensed airwaves produced a tremendous amount of innovation around the world. Investing in more unlicensed technologies will keep that innovation going.