Is WiFi A Scarce Resource?

July 8th, 2010 by Asif Leave a reply »

Can you picture a world with no WiFi?

If you’re in the US or Europe, probably not, in fact there’s a good chance you’re in a coffee shop or somewhere else right now reading this while connected to a WiFi hotspot.  If you’re Canada it’s easier to imagine because other than Starbucks and Second Cup there really isn’t any WiFi.

So what would a world without WiFi look like?  Is there a problem looming on the horizon?  According to Cisco Systems, we may be in for a WiFi shortage.  You see the number of WiFi-enabled devices is growing rapidly (580 million shipped in 2009) and the spectrum available for WiFi broadcast is finite.

When it comes to devices, we know all about the smartphones, iPads, and laptops roaming around everywhere these days, but add to that digital cameras, photo frames, televisions, gaming platforms and the rest, and the demand is staggering.  It’s a rare coffee shop that doesn’t buzz with WiFi activity at all hours of the day and night. Now that Starbucks, will bring free WiFi to all locations in North America, the spectrum will be taxed even more.

Cisco, a major player in the hardware-side of the WiFi business, says smartphones use 30 times as much data as regular phones.  That’s a lot of browsing, video watching, shopping, and stock checking.  And with 1.7 million next-gen iPhones alone selling before the end of June, your favorite hotspot is swarming with even more WiFi usage than before.

You need look no further than the 1100 people in attendance for the WWDC conference at the Moscone centre where Apple CEO Steve Jobs himself couldn’t get a WiFi connection to show off his company’s latest version of the iPhone.

We’ve all had those moments, where the demand far outstrips the supply of WiFi and we get a spotty or slow or even no connection at all.  Are we using too much of the available spectrum?  Can WiFi grow to fit our gadget-loving needs?  We’re certainly going to buy more devices, but unless we increase the amount of WiFi out there, we’re all in for more Jobs-like moments in the future.

It’s not just about the proliferation of devices, but also the type of content and the amount of data being consumed on the network.  In particular, Video and location-based services like Foursquare are exploding.

Mobile TV over WiFi could be a big deal, according to a report by Juniper Research, TV over WiFi traffic could increase 25 times between now and 2015 with revenues in the $7 billion range.

It’s expected as this happens that cellular operators will turn to WiFi to offload more traffic from the already taxed 3G/4G networks.

“Cellular networks are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver high quality mobile TV services at times of peak usage: thus, the World Cup has posed particular problems with large spikes in viewing figures”, says the report’s author Dr Windsor Holden, “WiFi can ameliorate this in the short term, but this is only a partial remedy.”

A white paper exploring the changing mobile TV landscape, ‘Tuning in to Mobile TV’ is available to download from Juniper’s website.

So with more devices and more traffic on the networks, how do we solve the problem?

One interesting development that can help alleviate some of the congestion is an announcement two weeks ago by President Obama. He signed a memorandum committing the government to provide 500 MHz worth of new broadband to ease the use of electronic equipment ranging from cell phones to laptop computers.

“America’s future competitiveness and global technology leadership depend, in part, upon the availability of additional spectrum,” Obama wrote in the memorandum. “The world is going wireless, and we must not fall behind.”

Under the plan, the government will begin identifying specific sources of the new spectrum; they will come from both the public and private sectors, including television broadcast and mobile satellite facilities

The primary source of this new spectrum will actually come from what is referred to as “white spaces” this is spectrum that has already been allocated to the radio and television broadcast sector, but is not used locally.   In fact the mandated move to digital television freed up large areas between 50 MHz and 700 MHz.

The bottom line is governments need to work with the private sector to open up more spectrum on all fronts – WiFi, 3G/4G, LTE, White Spaces, etc.  The consumer demand is already there and growing rapidly.  In doing so however, we need to also give consideration to the proper balance of free and paid connectivity sources.  The availability of broadband for all is still a must!

So, as we move to create more capacity, let’s do so in a way that serves all facets of our socio-economic global community.


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