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Broadband & InternetUnlicensed Spectrum

The Spectrum Crunch


October 24, 2013

Wi-Fi has become the cornerstone of the communications network in America today. Cable has deployed over 200,000 free, public Wi-Fi hotspots for its customers.  More data is carried over Wi-Fi than wireline and cellular combined.  However, this intense growth in Wi-Fi consumer demand threatens to overwhelm existing unlicensed spectrum allocations, an ominous cloud for the future of Wi-Fi.

But there is hope on the horizon.  Yesterday morning, NCTA hosted The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the Time Warner Cable Research Program on Digital Communications as they released “Solving the ‘Spectrum Crunch’ – Unlicensed Spectrum on a High Fiber Diet,”.

The bottom line is that current technology that enables Wi-Fi (both public and private) is under enormous pressure. More devices, more users, and more data are testing the limits of our current system. In short, we’re running out of usable Wi-Fi spectrum.

But according to Michael Calabrese, Director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation, the Federal government can effectively “promote innovation and consumer welfare in wireless” by “unleashing an abundance of spectrum, ” essentially relieving the pressure on the existing 2.4 GHz band by opening up use of the 5 GHz band, currently inhibited by existing FCC regulations.

The 5 GHz band is capable of one gig Wi-Fi speeds and can handle more users, more devices, bigger apps, and pull more of the burden off of cellular networks, which cannot keep pace with the growing demands for wireless data. Calabrese predicts that as much as 70 percent of total traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi networks by 2015. In addition, the 5 GHz band would enable an expansion of the 200,000 cable Wi-Fi hotspots which would “put clouds of connectivity over a dozen or more major metro areas.”

So why do we care about spectrum? Expanding broadband Wi-Fi access and creating a massive public network would be a game changer. With a new, broader spectrum Wi-Fi model in place, anyone could access the Internet from almost anywhere at any time. Aside from drastic improvements in web browsing, streaming video, and upload/download speeds on all Internet-connected devices, this effort has unlimited positive societal implications. More Wi-Fi means more innovation and new business. It can increase productivity or help bridge the digital divide. Public Wi-Fi will improve public safety, telecommuting, and telemedicine.

Cable is ready to deploy such a model – and the benefits to the consumer are unlimited and would be felt almost immediately: Speed, efficiency, capacity, coverage, and seamlessness, to name of few.

Rob Alderfer, Senior Strategic Analyst, Cable Labs at The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the Time Warner Cable Research Program on Digital Communications Presentation on “Solving the ‘Spectrum Crunch’ – Unlicensed Spectrum on a High Fiber Diet”

Stay tuned for more clips from this event on the NCTA YouTube page.