Telecommunications

Will protecting Wi-Fi crowd out innovation?

large broadcasting antenna

“I wanted to make this discussion a little broader than the LTE-U issue,” the moderator said, two-thirds of the way through a discussion that had zeroed in on precisely that: LTE-Unlicensed, or LTE-U.

In a Sept. 25 legislative briefing sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, representatives of telecommunications heavyweights praised the existing “permission-less innovation model,” while others questioned whether government might need to play a role in preserving the cornerstone of mobile Internet connectivity.

Wi-Fi lives on unlicensed spectrum (2.4 GHz and 5GHz bands in particular), where operators don’t need a Federal Communications Commission license to set up shop. With freedom to experiment and innovate comes the danger that new technologies hamper the effectiveness of existing models.

David Young, VP of public policy at Verizon, lauded the “permission-less innovation model” and said Wi-Fi owes it its existence.

“I was watching Seinfeld the other day and of course they had the big cordless phone with the antenna,” Young said. “That was the killer app for the 2.4 GHz band in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, before Wi-Fi came along, and fortunately for the proponents of Wi-Fi they didn’t have to prove to the cordless phone makers that Wi-Fi wouldn’t cause any harmful interference to the cordless phones.”

LTE-U essentially runs cell data through unlicensed spectrum, which provides stressed cell networks breathing room but could potentially crowd out other unlicensed services, as Google has noted.

Young and John Hunter, spectrum policy director at T-Mobile, argued that it’s hardly in telecoms’ interests to cripple Wi-Fi, a technology on which so many of their customers rely.

“It’s proven that [LTE-U] shares well with Wi-Fi,” Hunter added.

But Microsoft’s Paula Boyd questioned whether there was enough evidence to establish that “coexistence” between Wi-Fi and LTE-U could be readily achieved.

Neither Boyd nor Lara Clark, deputy director of the American Library Association’s office of IT policy, called outright for the FCC to slap license requirements on currently unlicensed spectrum.

But they noted the growing dependence of the American public – especially traditionally underserved communities – on Wi-Fi to connect to the digital economy, and the danger of disrupting a system that seems to be working well.

Young noted that even when it’s not issuing licenses, the FCC still has a role to play in stopping spectrum interference, while Hunter pitched LTE-U and Wi-Fi as complementary.

“We believe they can coexist and the evidence will show that,” he said.

The spectrum question will only grow in importance, the panelists agreed, as more and more people rely on Wi-Fi in public and private.

“We better learn how to share it,” said the ALA’s Clark. “This is a public interest.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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