The CIO of any medium or large company today is a network operator. A Wi-Fi network operator, competing for limited available bands with other network operators – which could be companies next door, the building owner, public hotspot operators, wireless ISPs and others.
This is by design – Wi-Fi is a very sophisticated technology, designed to share a small slice of spectrum with lots of others, and still deliver gigabit performance. On World Wi-Fi Day, when we celebrate the incredible connectivity convenience and choice that Wi-Fi brings us, we must also be aware of the need to fight to protect the “license-exempt” bands that Wi-Fi uses.
It’s a fight worth having – enterprise Wi-Fi networks leverage a spectrum-sharing technology with very clear benefits. Wi-Fi has no license costs for users or operators, it works with an incredibly wide range of powerful and interoperable products, it needs no expensive cabling, and it is ubiquitously built into in phones, tablets, laptops and more.
Now, what was a low-level jostling for space by Wi-Fi network operators is about to become a major technology battle. Mobile operators, which ran their networks in bands they licensed exclusively for their use, plan to extend their LTE networks into bands used by Wi-Fi. Contention for spectrum will get more intense, very quickly.
The earliest versions of Wi-Fi used the 2.4GHz band, which is in many places already too crowded for reliable use (“… not considered suitable for use for any business and/or mission critical enterprise applications,” says a joint position paper by Apple and Cisco, published this February). Most newer Wi-Fi devices and access points have moved to the 5.8GHz band because it allow faster speeds and more users – a long as the band is not too congested.
What should be concerning to CIOs is that the mobile operators have their eyes on the 5.8GHz ISM band used by Wi-Fi for technologies such as License Assisted Access (LAA), loosely ‘LTE in Wi-Fi bands’ and LTE Wi-Fi Link Aggregation (LWA), loosely ‘LTE over Wi-Fi’. We’ve already seen the major mobile operators in South Africa running tests on a stepping-stone technology called LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-), taking advantage of a current lack of regulatory controls.
Roger Hislop, a senior engineer in the Research and Innovation group at Internet Solutions and IEEE 802.22.3 Task Group chair on spectrum characterisation and occupancy sensing, says that CIOs should care about encroachment of large, national into Wi-Fi bands if they care about the performance of their networks.
“This is not just a regulatory issue that large network operators need to worry about – for enterprises the threat to the long-term future of Wi-Fi is very real. We all need to pay attention to ensure that decisions made now lead to more choices, better services, and a greater variety of industry players in wireless networking.”
“Most of the scramble for spectrum is due to an artificial shortage caused by the lack of allocations to broadband data,” says Hislop. “This is particularly true in South Africa where new spectrum assignment is ten or more years delayed. This means that operators are increasingly eyeing the ‘digital commons’ of the shared bands that Wi-Fi uses.”
This is leading to a clash of operator models. Mobile operators in licensed bands have taken their multi-billion Rand start-up capital funding and pumped it into exclusive-use national licences and into national network build. They have reaped incredible financial rewards and built up war chests of billions of Rands. Now with new technologies like LTE-U and LAA they are coming head-to-head against the variety of operators that started small, local businesses that have had to co-operate to use the free – but shared and unprotected – bands.
And in the middle of this clash are the businesses that use Wi-Fi for their own local area networking needs.
Hislop believes that the ideal for consumers, SMEs and large enterprises alike is cooperation and integration between mobile and Wi-Fi operators and regulation that respects the needs of business Wi-Fi users.
“If CIOs want seamless authentication and unified billing for their users when they’re out and about, and they want to be able to pick the right network operator and technology for the right application – like emergency calls over GSM because it’s robust, and video streaming over Wi-Fi because it’s faster – then they should demand cooperation between the different operators. The private sector must also step up and defend their interests when it comes to allocation of spectrum, and how it must be shared,” he says.
What do South Africa’s CIOs need to do?
- Find forums of common interest with other enterprises and work together: The battle over sharing of spectrum resources is not just for network operators – it’s also a critical issue for business.
- Make their voices heard by regulators and policy-makers: Corporate South Africa can make a difference through involvement with the regulator and government to ensure that Wi-Fi is protected into the future.
- Review their technology and vendor selections: As decision-makers in major technology procurement projects, CIOs must be satisfied that their network service providers or equipment vendors are equally engaged in the spectrum debate, and their solutions mitigate their customers’ risk.
Hislop cites industry research conducted by Gartner that says by 2018, 40% of enterprises will specify Wi-Fi as the default connection even for non-mobile devices, such as desktops, desk phones, projectors, conference room equipment.
“For enterprise infrastructure to reap the benefits of going wireless, we need to give Wi-Fi a safe future,” says Hislop.
World Wi-Fi Day is an initiative of the Wireless Broadband Alliance. Taking place on 20 June, World Wi-Fi Day focuses industry, policy and public attention on addressing the divide between connected and unconnected societies.