Super Wi-Fi. The words sound pretty great together, don't they? Like a deity. Omnipotent. So powerful. So many possibilities.
Two scientists from KIT (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) in Germany have proposed a creation of just that, a Super Wi-Fi, from terrestrial broadcasting. Arnd Weber and Jens Elsner, authors of the article Beachfront Commons, propose to use bands below 2 GHz for free communication, instead of licensing them to large companies.
UHF bands originally used for television are being used less and less. In 2008, the FCC auctioned licenses to use portions of the 700 MHz band, which is the spectrum just above the remaining TV broadcast channels. According to a 2012 New York Times Article, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint said they required more radio spectrums, citing necessity due to growing demand, and they sought FCC approval to buy more at auction. The frequencies they hope to buy are 470-698 MHz.
A helpful comparison, which the American public has already seen in headlines this year, would be the issues surrounding cable companies and net neutrality. Currently, cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner more or less have monopolies over certain geographical regions, allowing them to increase the price of Internet with little or no competition.
Telecommunications companies are courting the FCC in a similar fashion, likely in hopes of monopolizing the mobile broadband market to increase profits. It is possible that if telecommunications expanded networks and perhaps concentrated signals better, then mobile networks would be improved. But in Beachfront Commons, Weber argued that giving a small amount of UHF to individuals instead will cause innovation.
Weber and Elsner touched on the fact that certain technologies, which have been in competition with each other in past decades, have become "disruptors" together. This includes smartphones, which have brought WiFi and SMS together, whereas the technologies formerly competed. These disruptors have only been possible because of competition; and Weber asked if more future possible disruptions would contribute to a further reduction in the cost of communications, or to the development of new devices and markets?
As an ideal, competition and disruptors sound fantastic for the market, especially for the consumer. But questions lie in the logistics of high UHF bands hosting wireless communications, rather than one-way broadcasting. Typically, scholars suggest that spectrum commons can be used where congestion of the spectrum is unlikely to occur, as in short-range communications.
Weber and Elsner argue that opening up the spectrum could lead to higher speeds and better, perhaps larger, mesh networks. Techniques can also be used to deal with the open spectrum, among them being Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) and Beamforming, or what Weber refers to as "politeness protocols."
Weber said, "A tele[communications company] could argue we price spectrum such that users willing to pay always get some [access to wireless communication]. We argue, okay, with commons one may only get a little [access], but often one gets a lot, and always for free."
But the very idea of radio frequencies and limited spectrum may be a falsehood entirely.
David P. Reed is an American computer scientist most famous for co-authoring the paper about the "end-to-end principle," which in essence created the foundation for the Internet. The end-to-end principle stipulates that in node communication, any "function" (for example, a checksum that checks data errors in a file transfer) should be added at each end host (destination), rather than in the intermediary nodes between the two hosts. This concept actually has been used to argue for net neutrality, because of its use of "dumb" networks. (The original paper is here.)
Reed added an interesting twist to the spectrum argument. He argued that it's a falsehood that a frequency band can only be used by one system at a time.
"The problem with this…falsehood is that frequency bands are, from an engineering point of view, far from the best way to share the electromagnetic field we use for communications -- so inefficient, in fact, that they create a worsening 'scarcity' that need not exist at all," he said.
According to Reed, the idea that there are limited radio frequencies is much like saying that there is limited color in the color spectrum. There are infinite frequencies -- much in the way that there are infinite shades of the color blue -- and they do not interfere; they pass through each other. Bad communication using radio and television frequencies is an issue of devices, not of scarce spectrum space.
Indeed, consumers have seen that upgrading wireless devices improves communication. Weber and Elsner touched on this idea of necessary innovation in Beachfront Commons, but Reed took the idea a step further and proposed that the entire use of spectrum needs to be scrapped.
"'Super WiFi' is interesting in a certain way, but it's been a bit overhyped, and it does not address the long term challenges of an ever-increasing need for wireless internetworking," Reed said. "…The era of sitting down at a laptop, plugging into the wall or a fixed hotspot, is an idea that has been fading for a decade now. 'Super WiFi' is addressing a problem that is not the problem now, and certainly will be less of a problem in the future."