Do Consumers Need to Understand Wireless Technologies?
Last week in Wilmington, N.C., database operator Spectrum Bridge launched the first commercial wireless network using unlicensed spectrum that was freed up in the shift from analog to digital television. In essence, the network operates in the white spaces between TV channels.
The technology is particularly useful for serving less densely populated areas, such as rural areas, where most vacant TV channels can be found. The low frequencies used by the white spaces travel well through buildings and varied terrain and can operate in a 50-mile radius with a single access point.
Wilmington is using the unlicensed spectrum to service its entire “Smart City” initiative, including video surveillance, free wireless Internet access in city parks, and water monitoring solutions.
It’s been a long road for white space advocates. The FCC conducted a variety of tests of the technology and industry heavy weights such as Dell, Google and Microsoft championed the effort. In November 2008, the commission first approved the use of white spaces, with a variety of conditions in place to protect for interference with neighboring broadcast TV stations and wireless microphones. In October 2009, Spectrum Bridge launched the first white spaces trial in a rural location. Almost two years later, in August 2011, the IEEE approved the first white spaces standard.
Back in 2010, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski coined the term “Super WiFi” to refer to white spaces technology, a term that was later adopted by the industry and tech trade press, and championed by the Wireless Innovation Alliance.
But now that the technology is finally gaining mainstream name recognition and momentum, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which holds the trademark to the term “Wi-Fi,” has issued a clear warning to stop using “super Wi-Fi” to refer to white space service. The group maintains that the underlying technology is not WiFi, and calling it such will only lead to consumer confusion. The solution? The Wi-Fi Alliance suggests the more accurate description – “traditional Wi-Fi routers that include white space spectrum.”
On the one hand, I see their point. For instance, let’s take a look at the term “4G.” Major wireless providers have muddied the waters, using 4G to apply to a variety of technologies from mobile WiMax to HSPA+ and LTE.
As a result, it wasn’t really all that surprising when Nielsen reported last year that consumers are confused about what 4G refers to. In fact, just last week, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) approved specifications for the next generation of wireless broadband.
Both LTE Advanced and WiMAX 2 meet the 100 Mbps speed standard, and can provide speeds up to 500x faster than typical 3G connections while using spectrum much more efficiently. The ITU standards setting body calls this 4G but the industry will have to call it something else since they call the previous iterations of WiMAX and LTE their 4G offerings. Talk about consumer confusion.
On the other hand, I’m not really sure it matters how we refer to each generation of wireless technology — or white spaces vs. Wifi — as long as the industry is consistent and clear about the devices, applications and real-world network speeds.
With white spaces technology, the customer will be outfitted with a special WiFi router that will operate in this new spectrum band. From his perspective, it will be faster than traditional WiFi and receive a stronger signal through walls.
Consumers don’t need to grasp the underlying technology, but they do not to be able to differentiate one service over another and understand the resulting benefits.