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The future of Wi-Fi: regulation vs. cooperation

Wi-Fi will support voice, IoT and more. Will it be regulated?

The future of unregulatd Wi-Fi could depend on the work underway in an Austin office park. Nestled between a small Microsoft office and a soccer field, the Wi-Fi Alliance keeps a fairly low profile in Austin. But it is becoming a significant voice in Washington, D.C. as the Federal Communications Commission turns its attention to Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum.

“Minimal regulation has served us well for 30 years or so in unlicensed so hopefully we can remain in the era of minimal regulation with maximum innovation and maximum spectrum use,” said Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa. But Figueroa is making it clear that his organization intends to protect Wi-Fi from technologies that could threaten its access to spectrum. “We feel like the option for regulation needs to remain open so long as there is a risk,” he said.

The risk involves technology that could challenge the mission of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a global nonprofit that works to ensure interoperability and security for Wi-Fi equipment and devices. Many of those devices operate in the 5 GHz spectrum allocated to Wi-Fi by the FCC. The spectrum is unlicensed, meaning that companies do not have to purchase the right to use it. That makes it very attractive to wireless carriers, who have been paying record amounts for licensed spectrum in recent years. But instead of using the 5 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi, some carriers want to transmit LTE signals in the unlicensed bands. That’s got some Wi-Fi chipmakers and equipment makers worried about interference.

“There is something to be said for making sure that we respect the value that’s already there,” said Figueroa. “Wi-Fi has been probably the model success story for unlicensed. It’s used every day, it carries more than half the Internet traffic.”

LTE-U, or LTE unlicensed, was developed by chipmaker Qualcomm, which has conducted extensive tests to show that Wi-Fi and LTE do not interfere with one another. As the world’s leading maker of LTE modems and a significant producer of Wi-Fi chipsets, Qualcomm is uniquely positioned to make these claims. But some other makers of Wi-Fi chips and access points are unconvinced. They have turned to the Wi-Fi Alliance to demand further testing before LTE-U equipment hits the market.

The Alliance has created a co-existence task group, and has scheduled an early November workshop in Palo Alto to conduct further tests. Qualcomm, a sponsor member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said it plans to participate. But the Wi-Fi Alliance wants to test equipment from other vendors as well.

“One vendor’s equipment cannot be taken to represent all LTE-U,” said Figueroa. “Qualcomm device/devices have been central to the reported studies on Wi-Fi/LTE-U coexistence. … Potential variances in implementation and configuration choices allowed by the current LTE-U specification may result in spectrum sharing variations from one vendor to the next. We will discuss these topics at our upcoming workshop, and we are encouraged by Qualcomm’s participation in that event–along with Google, Verizon, Ericsson, Samsung, and others.”

Verizon Wireless and Ericsson have been two of the biggest proponents of LTE-U. When the Wi-Fi Alliance wrote to the FCC to urge the agency to require further testing of LTE-U equipment, Verizon responded by saying that the group has no business testing its LTE-U equipment.

“Allowing an organization that certifies interoperability for one particular technology to become the gatekeeper for another technology to use unlicensed spectrum would jeopardize the commission’s entire framework that has made unlicensed spectrum so successful as an open platform for permissionless innovation,” Verizon wrote to the FCC. “As members of the Wi-Fi Alliance interested in extending the benefits of LTE on unlicensed spectrum to our customers, we urge the commission to reject this unprecedented request.”

The Wi-Fi Alliance said that so far there have not been test methodologies that encompasses all Wi-Fi use cases, and so it has created a set of coexistence guidelines for future testing. The guidelines have three chapters:

1. Key performance indicators that characterize the performance of different traffic types, and how they should be measured.
2. Different topologies of Wi-Fi and LTE environments that should be considered in future testing.
3. Guidelines for testing in different loading environments and for testing the performance of Wi-Fi networks with a mix of data traffic.

“Ultimately this is probably going to be the foundation for a test plan that Wi-Fi Alliance will deliver,” said Figueroa. “With the help from Wi-Fi Alliance, with real solutions like our guidelines and future testing, industry should be able to sort this out on its own. … We’re hoping that the industry will sort this out, because we can and we should.”

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