Industry Voices: When Wi-Fi doesn’t save the day

Industry Voices are op-eds from industry experts or analysts invited to contribute by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

Wi-Fi Forward, Big Cable’s lobbying group on spectrum issues, is making breathless claims about my favorite piece of work. The advocates have posted a blog claiming Wi-Fi Saves the Day, Every Day

I didn’t see it the day it was posted because a winter storm had knocked out my power, silencing all of my connectivity aside from my phone. For 14 hours my principal form of internet use was chatting and browsing as well as checking the Xcel outage map for information on pending repairs. It was a like a longer-lasting version of the common cable outage.

So the article struck me as supremely ironic.

Wi-Fi is great for connecting things around the home and office to each other, especially battery powered devices, but it can’t even connect us to the internet without a great deal of help. Wi-Forward’s puffery doesn’t help its cause.

Some Wi-Fi background

Nobody loves Wi-Fi more than I do, having consulted with the major player in its creation in the early ’90s. My client, Photonics, made Photolink, the first wireless local area network for AppleTalk, the proprietary network that connected early Macs to laser printers.

Photonics was keen to address a larger market with a standards-based upgrade that would work with PCs. As one of the IEEE 802.3 standards engineers who transformed the Ethernet physical layer from a coaxial bus to the now-familiar switch and twisted pair spoke, the project made perfect sense. Going wireless simply meant replacing wired spokes with wireless ones.

Legacy Ethernet had been inspired by the radio-based ALOHA network that provided access to ARPANET across the Hawaiian Islands, so taking Ethernet wireless seemed almost like destiny. Because Wi-Fi is strictly local, we were able to devise both infrared and radio frequency physical layers.

Infrared became something of a joke, but it’s coming back. Wi-Fi doesn’t even need radio frequency spectrum anymore, and it works quite well on ultra-high frequencies that aren’t practical for mobile devices.

Making predictions is hard

Wi-Fi wasn’t meant to be the end-all and be-all of networks; it wasn’t even intended to be a means of internet access because nobody but academics used the internet in 1990. We apparently suffered from a lack of imagination.

Today’s Wi-Fi advocates have the opposite problem, a chronic tendency to present Wi-Fi as the answer to all connectivity questions. We see that playing out in a dangerous way in Washington, D.C., debates over prime spectrum for mobile, residential and industrial applications such as private 5G.

In reality, Wi-Fi is a small part of the larger wireless network ecosystem that is quietly replacing the wire. Cable is fundamentally aware of this, and it correctly sees 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) as an existential threat.

The emerging new normal

For the first time ever, cable internet is facing substantial competition in its core market. Cable bundles are dying out and operators can’t charge $30/month for landline phone service any more. While cable has had to contend with patches of fiber since the early aughts, outside the Verizon footprint this hasn’t been a major threat.

To the extent that we value wireline broadband, fiber is destined to be the long-term winner, but it’s still not available everywhere. Fiber is very capital intensive, and customers are slow to switch from the company they know to a relative unknown barring compelling reasons.

By contrast, fixed wireless is a very easy sell. Most of us already have a mobile plan and we all see ads from our carrier touting free trials for attractively priced residential Internet plans. Adding residential broadband to an existing mobile bundle overcomes the incumbency advantage that plagues fiber-to-the home (FTTH).

Strangling the baby (nightmarish image, sorry!)

FWA dominates net adds for residential broadband. Per Leichtman Research Group: Fixed wireless services accounted for 104% of the total net broadband additions in 2023, compared to 90% of the net adds in 2022, and 20% of the net adds in 2021

Between FTTH with higher ceiling and FWA with lower prices – and no linear TV to fall back on – cable is caught in the pincers. It can’t go after fiber because Congress is in love with it, but FWA has a vulnerability: Its future depends on government decisions about spectrum allocation.

Hence, depriving 5G FWA of access to spectrum makes business sense to cable, even if the means of doing so – over-allocating Wi-Fi in the name of a better internet experience – is absurd.

A supremely unbalanced policy

The lack of licensed, full power mid-band spectrum limits the ability of carriers to offer FWA broadband to U.S. consumers. This is great for the cable hegemony, as it makes broadband markets less than fully competitive.

While we currently have decent licensed allocations in the low band and high band, our mid-band position is pathetic. Per Analysis Mason, Japan has already allocated 1,100 MHz of mid band for licensed, full power use while the U.S. has to get by on 450 MHz.

Not only does Japan have 2.5 times as much licensed mid band as the U.S., we have nearly twice as much unlicensed mid band, 1,905 MHz to 1,060 including 80 MHz in the mid band. Unlicensed signals, mainly Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, only need to travel 20 feet to cover the typical home while licensed has to cover the entire nation, both indoors and outdoors. Assigning prime spectrum to a system with Wi-Fi’s modest requirements is irrational on its face.

The right track

The ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee and its internet subcommittee, Senators Ted Cruz and John Thune, and a former chair of the House Internet subcommittee, Senator Marsha Blackburn, have written the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 in order to correct our mismatched spectrum policy. The bill also restores the FCC auction authority that unfortunately lapsed due to Pentagon shenanigans a year ago.

The Commerce Committee will debate this bill on Thursday. Wi-Fi Forward is pressuring Democrats to kill the bill on the basis of shameless claims.

The Commerce Committee shouldn’t fall for this misinformation. Over-allocating Wi-Fi while starving FWA is like subsidizing cars in areas that lack roads.

Wi-Fi is doing fine, but the broadband market will erode if the FCC can’t auction the mid-band spectrum the U.S. needs.

Richard Bennett is an Ethernet and Wi-Fi pioneer who has worked for leading technology think tanks and the FCC. He publishes High Tech Forum and consults on network policy and engineering.