Just three weeks ago, that cable, retail, and consumer electronics companies put aside their competitive differences and joined together to form the WiFiForward coalition. The new group has one primary goal: to make it easier to use unlicensed spectrum for the steadily growing deployments of WiFi in the US. (See Rival MSOs, Tech Rivals Unite on WiFi.)
On Friday morning, the coalition put a finer point on that mission with its inaugural event in Washington. The group's breakfast session, entitled, "WiFi in the 5 GHz Fast Lane," focused on the economic benefits of unlicensed spectrum, and specifically on the arguments for opening up new parts of the 5-gigahertz spectrum band to WiFi use.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel headlined the WiFiForward event with her take on the importance of WiFi. "WiFi is an essential on-ramp to the Internet," said Rosenworcel. "But more than that, nearly one-half of wireless data connections are now offloaded onto unlicensed spectrum."
Rosenworcel argued that in addition to looking at the 5.35-5.47GHz and 5.85-5.925GHz frequency bands, the FCC should allow the expansion of WiFi into the frequency band between 5.15 and 5.25GHz. She cited a letter from the US Department of Defense last summer, which said that it no longer needed the lower frequency band for telemetry use and that the spectrum could be re-allocated for WiFi.
"We should seize this opportunity right now," said Rosenworcel. "We can take the flexible WiFi rules that have already been the script for an unlicensed success story in the 5.725-5.825GHz band and expand them to the 5.15-5.25GHz band. If we do, we could effectively double unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight."
Raul Katz, an adjunct senior research scholar at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and the author of "The Value of Unlicensed Spectrum," also spoke at the WiFiForward event. Katz cited his own research indicating that unlicensed spectrum provided $222.4 billion in economic value in 2013. He also stated that 68% of wireless traffic is now being conducted over WiFi and noted that in some ways WiFi has become the primary wireless transport mechanism for Internet data, while mobile carrier networks now handle offload traffic.
For cable companies, securing greater WiFi capacity is critical for several reasons. Service providers need more wireless throughput in the home to support wireless video networking and more WiFi outside the home to support public hotspots and the sale of WiFi offload services.
In a final panel discussion at the WiFiForward event, several technology company and association representatives made their own arguments for opening up more unlicensed wireless spectrum. Memorably, Steve Schwartz, representing the International Association of Venue Managers, pointed out that 43% of stadiums and arenas currently offer WiFi to consumers, while another 48% plan to add WiFi to their venues this year. "We simply don't have enough capacity," Schwartz said.
That statement is likely to be a common refrain for the WiFiForward coalition in 2014.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading