Tag Archives: WiFi

The eternal why not WiFi question has an eternal answer

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The retro look.

Every so often someone asks me something like why can’t we just use WiFi to deliver broadband service? For those of us who’ve been working in the community broadband sector for a decade or more, the question was settled with the collapse of the Great Muni WiFi Bubble more than ten years ago. But for most, that’s a relic of the distant and dim pre-iPhone past, when rocking good service was measured in kilobits and the fastest way to download a movie was to drive to a store and rent a video.

The answer is that WiFi technology was originally designed as an indoor substitute for short distance ethernet cables, and not for outdoor or wide area service. It uses unlicensed spectrum with power determined by federal regulations and propagation characteristics set by the laws of physics.

The primary factors that determine the practical service radius of a WiFi-based network are transmit power (again, limited by law) and antenna design and position. Other factors, such as foliage, interference/noise level and the limitations of the WiFi protocol, come into play, but raw power and antenna capabilities are the big ones.

So if you have a top of the line WiFi access point bolted to a light pole, using maximised omni-directional antenna design and transmit power, it can communicate at reasonably high speeds with a similar access point over something like 400 meters, assuming there are no major obstructions.

But if that access point is communicating through clear air with a laptop or mobile phone or similar mass market device, that effective distance drops to 100 meters or less. If there’s a wall between the device and the access point – i.e. the user is inside a home or business – the distance is considerably, maybe impossibly, less. The transmit power and antenna design of the user’s equipment counts, too. If the user has a special gizmo – a WiFi bridge with higher power and a better antenna – the effective range might go up as high as 200 meters, and it might be useable indoors. Might be.

But while might be is good enough for an occasional free connection to a hotspot, it isn’t an acceptable standard for mainstream, consumer grade broadband service. That’s why we need something better: appropriately designed, professionally engineered and sufficiently provisioned copper, fiber or wireless infrastructure.

FCC wants to open 1,200 MHz of spectrum to unlicensed users, and that’s a lot

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a radical overhaul of the way licensed spectrum is managed, and shared with unlicensed users. Besides upping the stakes for wireless Internet service providers this week, the FCC began considering a plan to open up a massive 1,200 MHz slice of spectrum in the 6 GHz range to WiFi, Internet of things (IoT) and other new and unlicensed uses.

It’s a lot of bandwidth. The 2.4 GHz band originally used for WiFi is only 83 MHz wide, and the newer 5 GHz band is 150 MHz.

Two methods are proposed. In 850 MHz of sub-bands assigned to “fixed” uses, where transmitters and receivers stay in one place – links between TV studios and transmitters, for example – unlicensed users would be able to transmit at standard power levels, so long as they avoid interfering with license holders, via a hardware-based coordination system yet to be established. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but the idea is that unlicensed equipment would be automatically prevented from interfering with a nearby, licensed user.

A similar system is in place for coordinating fringe frequencies – aka white space – assigned to TV stations, and another is specced for managing wireless broadband service in the 3.5 GHz band, but neither involve the huge swath of spectrum in the 6 MHz plan.

Other sub-bands – a total of 350 MHz – are assigned to transmitters that move around, such as TV news trucks. Coordination would be too complicated. Unlicensed users in those ranges would be restricted to low power, indoor equipment – WiFi or Bluetooth for example – that couldn’t, or shouldn’t, cause interference.

The FCC and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission, have been setting aside bands for particular purposes, and giving exclusive licenses for specific frequencies in those bands to individual users for 90 years. It made sense in the analog era. But the widespread adoption of digital transmission technology changed the game. The same bandwidth that was needed to broadcast one low definition, analog television channel can support many high definition, digital ones.

And television is just one example. Existing users in the 6 MHz band include utilities, railroads and telecoms companies. With digital technology, they don’t need anywhere near the amount of spectrum they now control. At least not to do the same things they were doing in the analog days. Arguably, they can do more now, and often need to, but technology has come a long way: spectrum sharing is technically feasible. The FCC has to figure out the best way to implement it, so no great harm is done, but it is doing the right thing.

Ready or not, T-Mobile wants to push ahead into unlicensed bands

by Steve Blum • , ,

Standard-setting groups have been trying to work out a peaceful coexistence strategy for traditional WiFi and carrier-class mobile data traffic in unlicensed bands. The mobile industry’s primary thrust is the LTE-U protocol, which would use the same basic technology as licensed 4G cell sites in the same bands as WiFi, with, it is hoped, sufficiently intelligent, active management of transmissions so as not to crowd out everyone else.

The Federal Communications Commission has to certify that the equipment being used meets its rules for operating in unlicensed spectrum, and it has held off doing so until the Wi-Fi Alliance comes to an agreement with mobile industry groups, including the LTE-U Forum, on coexistence plans. That process has not moved as quickly as originally hoped – no surprise – and now T-Mobile wants the FCC to move ahead next month, agreement or not…

It has been more than a year since the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it was creating a cooperative process to evaluate coexistence between LTE-U and Wi-Fi devices, and the Commission has held off approving devices in anticipation of results from the process. Although the test plan is fundamentally complete, we have seen numerous deadlines come and go without finalization of the procedure…The delay in approving LTE-U devices is stifling innovation and investment in the communications ecosystem – one of the most vibrant segments of our economy that directly affects all Americans. There is no reason, therefore, to wait beyond September 2016 to permit use of this innovative new technology.

There are two ways to look at this. Either mobile carriers have the same right as anyone else to use unlicensed frequencies so everyone should get on with it, or WiFi has become such a ubiquitous public amenity that it deserves some sort of special protection in those bands. The FCC’s plan to wait until industry negotiations are complete is a worthy attempt to steer a middle course, but it seems to be at the point where it has to decide which way to finally turn.

T-Mobile filing, with Nokia LTE-U presentation

WiFi is worth more to the economy than congress thinks, FCC commission says

by Steve Blum • , , ,

What’s the value of free? That’s the question that FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is asking as she pushes for more WiFi – i.e. unlicensed and available to everyone at no cost – spectrum to be allocated. The core problem, as she sees it, is that congressional analysts don’t understand what freely available spectrum is worth to the U.S. economy

Traditionally, the legislative process has overlooked the value of the unlicensed spectrum and favored licensed spectrum. This is not because of some rancorous partisan divide. It’s not because of some unsavory battle between industries. Instead, it simply reflects the way the non-partisan staff of the Congressional Budget Office assign value to spectrum when it is licensed and sold at auction. As a result, bills that direct the FCC to sell licensed spectrum get high grades, while legislation that creates more spectrum for Wi-Fi get low marks.

This accounting method is outdated. It fails to take into account the economic activity Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum create every year. But we can address it if every time we identify spectrum to auction for licensed use, we also identify spectrum for unlicensed use.

A spectrum auction is a good thing, generally. Properly run, it allows a fair market value to be placed on private, exclusive use of an otherwise common resource, and it encourages rapid and intensive use of that resource once it’s sold – a company that pays billions of dollars for a small slice will want to generate a return on that investment as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, congress has a hard time quantifying that value. Lawmakers grab onto wildly inflated estimates of what an auction will bring, and then spend it several times over before a single dollar is collected. The current double-auction aimed at converting TV spectrum to mobile broadband use is a perfect example.

Rosenworcel is correct in focusing on the value of spectrum decisions to the overall economy, rather than on shortsighted, and overly optimistic, estimates of immediate income to the federal treasury.

Unlicensed spectrum needs clear rules or no rules, not guesswork in between

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Not just another monkey.

There are no rules against blocking someone else’s WiFi hotspot, according to the two republican members of the Federal Communications Commission. Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly posted dissents to a decision to fine M.C. Dean, a concessionaire at the Baltimore convention center, $718,000 for interfering with attendees ability to connect to their own mobile hotspots.

On the surface, it’s a Catch-22 argument: Pai and O’Rielly are saying that since people who use unlicensed spectrum – Part 15 users, in FCC jargon – have to accept any interference they receive, interfering with them isn’t really interference. It’s tempting to write off the dissents as partisan bickering, but there are two important issues that should be addressed.

The first is whether unlicensed users can do whatever they want, without regard to other unlicensed users (interfering with a licensed user is absolutely forbidden – no one is arguing with that). Part 15 of U.S. telecoms law, the unlicensed spectrum part, says yes, the law of the jungle applies. But there’s another, more general section of the rules (section 333, if you’re keeping count) that flatly prohibits causing any willfull or malicious interference to anyone else who is using the airwaves legally. It’s an apparent contradiction that needs to be unambiguously resolved by the FCC.

The second is whether sending a digital authorisation signal to someone else’s WiFi device – electronically leaning into the middle of the conversation and saying shut up – is malicious interference, or just a rude but allowable use of standard protocols. It’s a digital dilemma posed by rules written in an analog age.

FCC staff made the proper call in this and other WiFi blocking cases, but Pai and Rielly are correct in saying that the commission needs to formally update and clarify its rules. With the looming prospect of mobile carriers using unlicensed spectrum to supplement their assigned frequencies – technological 500 pound gorillas jumping into a cage full of WiFi monkeys – these questions have to be answered once and for all.

Two more WiFi bullies slapped down by FCC

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Hefty fines have again been assessed against hospitality companies that interfere with guests’ personal WiFi hotspots, or seem to. The Federal Communications Commission nailed a concessionaire at the Baltimore convention center for $718,000

The Enforcement Bureau’s investigation found that M.C. Dean engaged in Wi-Fi blocking at the Baltimore Convention Center on dozens of occasions in the last year. During the investigation, M.C. Dean revealed that it used the “Auto Block Mode” on its Wi-Fi system to block consumer-created Wi-Fi hotspots at the venue. The Wi-Fi system’s manual describes this mode as “shoot first, and ask questions later.” M.C. Dean’s Wi-Fi blocking activity also appears to have blocked Wi-Fi hotspots located outside of the venue, including passing vehicles. The Commission today charges M.C. Dean with violating Section 333 of the Communications Act by maliciously interfering with or causing interference to lawful Wi-Fi hotspots.

Hilton Hotels is also accused of WiFi blocking and, according to the FCC, is stonewalling the investigation. That netted the company a $25,000 fine, with more on the horizon…

In August 2014, the Commission received an initial consumer complaint alleging that the Hilton in Anaheim, California blocked visitors’ Wi-Fi hot spots unless those consumers paid a $500 fee to access Hilton’s Wi-Fi. The Commission has also received Wi-Fi blocking complaints involving other Hilton properties. In November 2014, the Bureau issued Hilton a letter of inquiry seeking information concerning basic company information, relevant corporate policies, and specifics regarding Wi-Fi management practices at Hilton-brand properties in the United States. After nearly one year, Hilton has failed to provide the requested information for the vast majority of its properties. Hilton operates several brands, including Hilton, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, and Waldorf Astoria properties.

Hilton and M.C. Dean joint Marriott and Smart Cities, another convention center WiFi operator, which have been fined in the past. Anyone who travels a lot knows the frustration of hotel and convention center shakedowns: everything from so-called amenity fees that magically appear on your bill to overpriced food to extortionate Internet service. Mostly, it’s perfectly legal. But not where someone else’s wireless service is concerned. Control of real estate does not confer control of the airwaves.

FCC fines WiFi operator $750K for jamming at convention centers

by Steve Blum • , ,

It’s kinda like poisoning your water bottle to make you buy a $10 coke.

The Federal Communications Commission has nailed another company for trying to force people onto its own, very expensive WiFi service by jamming personal hotspots created by mobile phones and cellular wireless routers. Smart City Holdings, which sells WiFi access in convention centers for $80 a day, was fined $750,000 for forcing visitors onto its network. According to the FCC consent decree, it was the result of a complaint…

In October 2014, the Bureau’s Spectrum Enforcement Division undertook the Investigation, which included sending a series of Letters of Inquiry to Smart City and reviewing the company’s written responses. Smart City’s responses revealed that, at several venues where it managed or operated Wi-Fi systems, it automatically transmitted deauthentication frames to prevent Wi-Fi users whose devices produced a received signal strength above a preset power level at Smart City access points from establishing or maintaining a Wi-Fi network independent of Smart City’s network. No evidence was submitted that the deauthentication was done in response to a specifically identified threat to the security of the Smart City network or the network’s users. After learning of the Bureau’s Investigation, also in October 2014, Smart City instructed its Wi-Fi network managers to cease such deauthentication.

It’s the second time the FCC has hit a greedy venue operator with a six figure fine. The first time involved Marriott, which was doing similar mischief in its hotels. The excuse Marriott gave was that it was a security measure, purely for the protection of its valued suckers guests. As the FCC’s investigation of Smart City shows, that explanation is nonsense.

Santa Clara finds muni WiFi success by matching expectations to reality

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

If the City of Santa Clara had promised residents a free all singing, all dancing WiFi broadband service, it would be getting slammed as a failure right about now. The service it launched earlier this year has trouble with throughput to mobile devices and it really doesn’t do a very good job with streaming video.

Instead, the city is trumpeting its success. And deservedly so. According to its recent press release

“The system is getting over a thousand more users per day than we expected during peak periods,” said John Roukema. “Even on weekends, we’re seeing around 5,000 logins a day. Santa Clara’s residents, workers and visitors have embraced the service, which is made possible by our upgrade to smart grid technology.”

Roukema is the head of Silicon Valley Power, which is what the city’s municipal electric utility is called. The free, more or less citywide WiFi system is cobbled together with SVP assets, including a fiber optic backbone that runs through much of the city, a recently upgraded WiFi-based smart meter network and the tattered remains of the failed MetroFi system, a leftover from the go-go muni WiFi days eight years ago.

When it launched, Santa Clara positioned the service as a light duty convenience when it happens to be available, and not as a lifeline utility for daily use. Check your email or take a quick look at a couple of websites: yes. Watch Netflix: no.

The average weekday user is consuming somewhere between 75 and 100 megabytes a day. If the distribution of user volume is anything like typical, there’s probably a relative handful that have figured out how to score free gigabytes, with the vast majority doing as expected and tapping the system for quick and convenient hits.

Set realistic expectations for service and deliver. Santa Clara is making muni broadband success look easy.

Muni WiFi still has utility, and at least two utilities

Originally, it was just the poles in Chaska that had a retro look.

The first generation of municipal wireless providers is mostly gone, as fiber takes precedence and mobile networks grow. One of the survivors deserves particular mention: the City of Chaska, Minnesota.

I visited Chaska several times in the course of building and running a similar WiFi-based broadband utility in Lompoc, California. Chaska’s project led ours by a few months and the lessons learned there saved us time, money and a lot of trouble. Not that we didn’t make plenty of our own mistakes learning opportunities.

Chaska used the original Tropos mesh WiFi network technology to blast a signal throughout the city, with the expectation of serving people inside their homes and businesses. It was a logical upgrade to the existing dial-up service the city offered to residents.

With no DSL or cable modem service – a common situation ten years ago – the kilobit-class service WiFi could deliver over a wide area was a killer advantage. By building on its existing dial-up base, Chaska.net grew to more than two thousand paid subscribers, which represented about a quarter of the city’s households. We never came close to that take-rate in Lompoc, and I don’t know of any muni WiFi system that did.

As wired and mobile infrastructure was built out in cities and WiFi’s serious limitations as a carrier-class technology became clear, muni wireless turned into an amenity for most people, although it remains a lifeline for some. Unlike most of their contemporaries, both Chaska and Lompoc are 1. still in business and 2. charge a fee for service. Maybe not for much longer, though.

With the subscriber count at a still impressive 1,400, Chaska has to choose between a multi-million upgrade or pulling back. Maybe even shut down WiFi service altogether. But it’ll still be in a broadband business it pioneered: it was running a muni fiber network before fiber was cool, and that’s going strong.


Apple plays market leader again with Hotspot 2.0

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Seamless offloading of cellular data traffic onto WiFi networks is a big step closer. Apple announced that version 7 of iOS and the next generation of iPhones will support the Hotspot 2.0 standard. The new capability should start appearing this fall.

The idea is to allow users to automatically authenticate on a WiFi hotspot blessed by their carrier when it’s available. Data traffic would then be routed via WiFi until the user moves out of range. At that point, it would switch back to the cellular network.

AT&T is already moving ahead with establishing compatible WiFi capacity, as it struggles to move traffic off of its mobile network. It needs support from handset manufacturers, and Apple’s decision to do so makes it a lot more likely that others will follow suit. Apple has a history of playing the market leader role when it comes to popularising standards – it was originally the first to get into WiFi in a big way. The calculation for other manufacturers will change, as they weigh the risk of letting Apple have a lock on what could be a very popular feature against the cost of integrating the new technology.

Having a widely accepted standard for integrating WiFi authentication and payment with mobile traffic management makes it easier for carriers to use third party capacity, and it gives hotspot operators a financial incentive to expand coverage. With a third of smart phone traffic already going via WiFi and overall bandwidth consumption continuing to boom, that kind of flexibility is a necessity.