NC County Adopts ‘Super Wi-Fi’

Published February 27, 2012

Wilmington, North Carolina residents will be the first in the nation to have access to a “super wi-fi” network which operates using the “white space” between licensed channels.

Technical experts, however, say the network will not provide legitimate wi-fi as it is commonly understood. Additionally, the bandwidth used to deploy the service will soon be outdated due to a Congressional mandate for the Federal Communications Commission to conduct auctions of unused television spectrum to raise an estimated $25 billion to help pay for extensions of the payroll-tax cuts and unemployment benefits.

Consumer advocates have weighed in as well, noting government-owned telecommunications services directly compete with private providers.

Not Real Wi-Fi?
Officials in the North Carolina’s New Hanover County said they were able to make a quick transition in using the spectrum for a mobile-data network because it was the first in North Carolina to successfully transition from analog to digital television.

However, because super wi-fi employs the spectrum between digital channels, it does not qualify as wi-fi, according to Kelly Davis-Felner, director of the Austin, Texas-based Wi-Fi Alliance.

“The Wi-Fi Alliance supports efforts to use the unlicensed spectrum known as television white spaces to expand connectivity,” said Davis-Felner. “However, there is currently no wi-fi technology that operates in this spectrum. It is important that users not be misled into confusing any such technology with wi-fi.”

Trademark Infrigement Claimed
The Wi-Fi Alliance says terms such as “super wi-fi” or “next generation wi-fi” for the television white spaces implementations available today will lead to substantial consumer confusion.

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance:

•    The technology touted as “super wi-fi” does not interoperate with the billions of wi-fi devices in use today.
•    Today’s deployments in television white spaces do not deliver the same user experience as is available in wi-fi hotspots and home networks.
•    Wi-fi is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the term “super wi-fi” is not an authorized extension of the brand.

Those who use the term say they have done so not to misrepresent the technology but to try to use a simple term to explain the technology, which offers farther-reaching wireless capabilities than traditional wi-fi.

Wider Coverage
Proponents of unlicensed white space use say the spectrum would help bring mobile broadband to underserved regions and help close the so-called “digital divide” between urban and rural areas. Wireless signals using the white space spectrum can cover five or more times the area of a traditional wi-fi signal, a few miles under certain conditions, compared to several hundred feet for typical wi-fi under optimal conditions in hotels or other areas.

Typical wi-fi might appear to operate for a wider distance, but this is only through the use of “repeaters” that amplify signals for broadcast. A typical hotel, for example, will have at least one repeater on each floor.

Proponents also claim super wi-fi makes wide-area or municipal wi-fi feasible because much less equipment (and cost) is needed for the operation. Hanover County purchased the equipment to offer the service, but it doesn’t charge many of the monthly customer fees that North Carolina’s failed municipal wi-fi contracts required.

Frequency Interference
Rick Rotondo, vice president of marketing for xG Technology in Sarasota, Florida, points out the FCC spectrum auctions, which will sell the white spaces to the highest bidders, will eliminate the possibility of using this technology in all but the most rural areas, and may leave purchasers of this equipment with obsolete instruments.

Rod Dir, CEO of Spectrum Bridge, which provided the cloud-based spectrum management platform supporting the technology for the Hanover County project, says the system still has benefits because it enables deployments—such as the placement of security cameras in parks—without the need to run unsightly or impractical wires. The Spectrum Bridge technology is designed, in part, to avoid clashes with broadcasts on nearby frequencies.

Beyond the Wi-Fi Alliance objecting to the common terminology, the National Association of Broadcasters has argued mobile Internet devices cannot operate on unlicensed spectrum without interfering with broadcasts on nearby frequencies, in large cities and rural areas alike.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.