Up until about two years ago, the broadband revolution had passed Paul Wofford by.
When he wanted to go online from his house in Camino, which is a little east of Placerville in rural Gold Country, he had to use a dial-up connection. It was creepingly slow and would take all day for he and his family to get through their email.
But then representatives from Cal.net, a small internet provider in the area, asked Wofford if he wanted to try out a service that promised to deliver broadband speeds wirelessly, even to customers like him who live in rural areas.
Wofford, 27, has been thrilled to have his internet access super-charged. Thanks to his new service, he’s been able to sign up for streaming video service from Netflix, play online games — and not spend all day downloading email.
“With dial-up, you can only do so much,” said Wofford, who works part time at a local elementary school and also helps out at his parents’ winery. “With this, you can do amazingly more stuff.”
Wofford and his family now have broadband thanks to a wireless technology that’s been long in development. Dubbed Super Wi-Fi, the technology has promised speedy internet for rural citizens and to help urban dwellers get connected in buildings and rooms that are now twilight zones for Wi-Fi signals. After years of delays, the technology may finally be ready for prime time.
Super Wi-Fi “fills a gap that nothing else can fill,” said Ken Garnett, chief technology officer at Shingle Springs-based Cal.net, which provides internet access wirelessly to surrounding rural areas east of Sacramento. “It enables us to provide service to those who cannot get service otherwise.”
What gives Super Wi-Fi such great potential is that it’s transmitted over the same portion of the airwaves that are used by television broadcasters. Compared to regular Wi-Fi or even most cellular transmissions, signals sent in the TV band can travel much longer distances. They can go through walls, trees and other barriers that can thwart other types of signals. And because the spectrum is regulated and largely reserved for television signals, Super Wi-Fi transmissions don’t have to contend with interference from random devices like microwaves or cordless phones, as do signals in other wireless bands.
Super Wi-Fi signals generally won’t be as fast as regular Wi-Fi signals, but for many customers, they’ll be faster and provide better service than what they’d get otherwise.
Q-Wireless, a broadband provider based in Evansville, Indiana, started offering Super Wi-Fi service to some of its rural customers about four months ago. It wasn’t unusual for customers using one of the company’s older wireless technologies to suddenly lose service because someone nearby had set up a wireless dog fence that interfered with their signals, said Phil Lambert, Q-Wireless’s general manager.
“We don’t have those nuances cropping up” with Super Wi-Fi, Lambert said. “We don’t have all this noise.”
But Super Wi-Fi’s use of the television airwaves is also what’s delayed it from becoming a commonplace technology, say wireless industry experts. Super Wi-Fi is built to work within the “white spaces” in the television airwaves. Those are the areas in the spectrum that are currently unused to prevent interference with other signals and include the channels on which nothing is being broadcast over the air.
The problem for Super Wi-Fi was that soon after regulators gave their stamp of approval for the technology to use the television spectrum back in 2010, they threw into question just how much space would be available. In 2012, regulators launched an effort to encourage television broadcasters to auction off their rights to those airwaves to cellular providers like AT&T to provide more room for all the data being transmitted over wireless networks to smartphones and other devices.
The auction process lingered on for years, and no one knew just how many broadcasters would give up their stations or how much space would be left over once they did. While a few equipment makers produced some prototype Super Wi-Fi devices and a handful of rural internet providers decided to test out the service, chipmakers, equipment and device manufacturers and broadband companies largely decided to wait until the auction process got sorted out.
“There was lot of momentum that was taken out of the process,” said Steve Coran, an attorney at Lerman Senter who serves as the regulatory counsel to the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. “You had fear and an uncertainty element that intruded.”
At long last, though, that uncertainty should be coming to an end. The spectrum auction formerly closed on Thursday, and the Federal Communications Commission is expected to announce the results in the middle of next month.
While that won’t bring the entire process to a close, the announcement should give a clear indication of how much space will be available in each television market for Super Wi-Fi. That will go a long way toward determining whether the technology will be viable nationwide or only in certain areas of the country.
It’s widely expected that there will be plenty of room for Super Wi-Fi in rural areas where there are few television signals, which is why companies like Cal.net and Q-Wireless have pressed forward with the technology even before the auction closes. The big question is whether regulators will preserve sufficient space for Super Wi-Fi in areas like New York and Los Angeles where there are lots of broadcast stations and in cities like Detroit and San Diego that have to share the airwaves with cities from other countries.
If there’s not enough space in those areas, Super Wi-Fi, in this country at least, will likely be relegated to rural areas. Without the potential to sell devices to the millions of customers in major urban areas, chip and equipment makers may well decide not to invest in the technology, which would limit competition, keep prices high — and further constrict Super Wi-Fi’s use.
“We’re all waiting to see that,” said Paul Margie, an attorney with Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis who works on wireless issues on behalf of Google and Microsoft, which have long promoted Super Wi-Fi. If regulators don’t open up enough space for the technology, he added, “it will be a huge wasted opportunity.”
For now, though, many in the industry are hopeful.
“We think gradually (Super Wi-Fi) will move into mainstream market where Wi-Fi is serving today,” said Haiyun Tang, CEO of Adaptrum, a San Jose-based company that makes Super Wi-Fi base stations and other equipment. “It can solve a lot of these Wi-Fi coverage issues.”
Meanwhile, those already using the technology are impressed. Q-Wireless switched over Doris Magan, a sales representative who lives in rural Kentucky between Evansville and Bowling Green, to Super Wi-Fi recently. Magan’s previous service from the company, which relied on a different wireless technology, used to disconnect multiple times a day, she said. Her Super Wi-Fi service, by contrast, is both more reliable and faster.
“It’s wonderful,” she said.
Super Wi-Fi at a glance
What is it? A wireless technology that transmits in the part of the airwaves traditionally reserved for television signals.
Why does it sound familiar? Federal regulators have been talking about the technology — or opening up the airwaves to permit it — for 15 years.
When will it be available? It’s already available in some rural areas. It could be available in other areas in the next several years, depending on the results of the spectrum auction, which ended on Thursday.
How does it work? Super Wi-Fi signals are designed to be transmitted in the “white spaces” in the spectrum — the channels where nothing is broadcast and the spaces between other signals. Super Wi-Fi transmitters are required to detect and keep track of other signals and avoid them.
What advantages does it offer? Signals in the television band can travel long distances and penetrate things like walls and trees that can block other transmissions. Because the television airwaves are regulated, there should be less interference than in unlicensed frequencies.
What are its potential shortcomings? Super Wi-Fi will generally offer slower speeds than regular Wi-Fi or LTE, the data standard used by wireless companies like AT&T.
Published at Thu, 30 Mar 2017 16:30:33 +0000