Super Wi-Fi: An Important Part of our Wireless Broadband Future

The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is hard at work on ways to bring our nation’s financial house in order, and drive the economic growth essential to our future. While there are many big issues facing the committee, unlicensed spectrum access – one of the smaller issues in play – deserves serious attention, for it has the potential to facilitate substantial long-term innovation, and create increased economic value for the nation and consumers. To ensure this potential is realized, Microsoft urges the Joint Committee to preserve the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to allocate spectrum for unlicensed use in the broadcast TV bands.

This is not a debate about a choice between licensed or unlicensed spectrum uses, specific wireless technologies or business models. It is about digital inclusion, access and innovation. Both licensed and unlicensed spectrum deliver unique and complementary benefits; neither is a substitute for the other; and both are essential elements of wise frequency allocation and government policy.

Today, devices that use unlicensed spectrum are a large and growing portion of the country’s information infrastructure. This is not mere supposition; it is a reality that each of us experiences every day. Wi-Fi, the best-known unlicensed success story, is a multi-billion dollar industry and an essential part of our mobile broadband ecosystem. Each time we connect to a coffee shop access point via a smartphone or PC to work or browse the Web, or use a wireless router to distribute broadband service to our home or office, we benefit from the use of unlicensed spectrum.

Unlicensed Wi-Fi has been successful due to the low barriers to entry and light-touch regulation. Any innovator or consumer can use it if they abide by established technical rules, and do not interfere with licensed users. This flexibility has spawned a rich, diverse and ever-expanding set of devices and applications. In that same spirit, allocating spectrum for unlicensed use in the broadcast TV bands will catalyze creation of the next generation of technological advances, and extend the reach of broadband to rural and underserved areas.

What makes the TV broadcast bands important? Little spectrum below 3.7 GHz is currently made available for unlicensed use, and the TV band is the last opportunity for the foreseeable future to obtain unlicensed spectrum below 1 GHz. Signals operating in these bands can travel farther using less power than those at the higher frequencies used by Wi-Fi, and they can penetrate walls and other obstacles – opening the path to a new “Super Wi-Fi” better suited to rural areas than existing Wi-Fi.

In addition to basic broadband connectivity, Super Wi-Fi will undoubtedly unleash new and unexpected communication innovations, just as Wi-Fi did. To view Super Wi-Fi as only replicating the same innovations as Wi-Fi would dramatically underestimate its potential, and substantially undervalue the economic potential of unlicensed spectrum in the TV bands.

Multiple manufacturers have already designed Super Wi-Fi devices, and await the opportunity to certify these devices for use in the TV bands. In addition, 10 companies (including Microsoft) have already been granted conditional authority by the FCC to operate as database administrators, allowing Super Wi-Fi devices to determine the TV bands that are available for secondary use without interference with broadcast television.

Economic forecasts, as well as accelerating market activity, demonstrate that use of unlicensed spectrum is critical to the future development of our nation’s wireless capabilities. If this opportunity is not seized, the U.S. could lose its global competitive edge in unlicensed technologies and services as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China move ahead.

· Easing Wireless Broadband Congestion. Wireless mobile operators that use licensed spectrum are increasingly offloading their escalating broadband traffic to Wi-Fi hotspots using unlicensed spectrum. They do so because of the unrivalled efficiency of unlicensed wireless systems that rely on well understood etiquettes to share the spectrum resource. In fact, there is already far more data traffic carried over Wi-Fi than over licensed mobile networks – a disparity that will increase to six times as much traffic over Wi-Fi compared to licensed mobile networks by 2015. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2015, more broadband traffic will travel over unlicensed wireless connections than even wired networks.

· Nonstop Hardware Innovation. The FCC has certified more than 20,000 devices in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band used for Wi-Fi, almost three times as many devices than have been certified in any other band.

· Unlicensed Uses Overtake Licensed. In the next few years, the sales of devices operating solely using unlicensed spectrum are likely to eclipse both the sales of devices using only licensed spectrum and the sales of devices using both licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

· Estimates of Accelerated Economic Activity. A 2009 study estimated that — Wi-Fi broadband access in homes, Wi-Fi delivering voice services and wireless access for patient records in hospitals, and special tags that allow wireless inventory tracking– represented about one-third of the unlicensed marketplace, and would generate approximately $16 billion to $37 billion per year in economic value for the U.S. economy over the next 15 years. 

· Rural Broadband Access. In addition to licensed spectrum, “…thousands of small Wireless Internet Services Providers (WISPs) provide such wireless broadband at speeds of around one Mbps using unlicensed devices, often in rural areas not served by cable or wireline broadband networks.”

As we move into a new era of communications and computing, one that is increasingly dependent on mobile devices and cloud computing, it is important that the Joint Committee preserve the FCC’s bipartisan decisions to make available unlicensed spectrum in the TV bands.

A balanced approach will create sustainable economic returns from innovation and job creation, and is of far greater value than the short-term government revenues that may accrue from a one-time spectrum auction alone. Indeed, it is critical if America is to realize the National Broadband Plan objectives to accelerate universal broadband access and adoption, and maximize consumer benefits across the broadband ecosystem.

About the Author

Corporate Vice President, Technology Policy Group, Microsoft