The Government Wants Gigabit Wi-Fi All For Itself

The 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard is here and ready to power the Internet of Things, but only if governmental communications systems will move off the 5 GHz spectrum first.

The Government Wants Gigabit Wi-Fi All For Itself
[Image: Flickr user Stig Nygaard]

If you think your Internet is slow now, just wait. As more and more devices connect to Wi-Fi networks in the U.S., those networks are beginning to creak under the weight. The new gigabit Wi-Fi standard promises to ease the pain, but there’s a problem: The latest standard in Wi-Fi technology–802.11ac, also known as gigabit Wi-Fi–only works on the 5 GHz band, and that frequency is already being used by some influential organizations, some inside the government itself.

This was the topic of conversation in yesterday’s hearing by the U.S. House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology: Can the federal government open up access to the 5 GHz band of wireless spectrum for expanded Wi-Fi usage without pissing off anyone important?

Today, the 5 GHz spectrum is used by critical government communication systems, as well as car companies like Toyota and GM for Internet-connected cars.

Meanwhile, companies like Comcast and Cisco–both of whom sent executives to testify before Congress yesterday–are clamoring for access to that same slice of the wireless pie.

“Gigabit Wi-Fi is here, it’s real and our customers are demanding it,” Cisco CTO Bob Friday told lawmakers. “But it requires wide bands of contiguous spectrum to handle the massive increase in demand driven by video. Technological improvements aren’t enough. Policymakers also have a major role to play and should provide more spectrum for Wi-Fi.”

What Is Gigabit Wi-Fi–More Importantly, When Can We Have It?

Gigabit Wi-Fi, as its name suggests, promises to deliver connection speeds of up to 1.3gbps, thereby nobly saving us all from the painful crawl of congested networks. As anybody who’s ever run a speed test on their home or office Internet connection knows, the download and upload speeds of today’s Wi-Fi networks are dramatically lower than the advertised speeds we all pay for, which are really only achievable by plugging one’s computer directly into the modem. You might have signed up for 50mbps, but your iPad would be lucky to pull down 20mbps. Gigabit Wi-Fi will change all that, delivering much snappier downloads (even if the promised 1.3gbps rate remains a rarity).

But it’s not just about faster movie downloads. As Friday explained in yesterday’s hearing, network congestion in places like university lecture halls and hospitals is already becoming severe, which runs the risk of slowing innovation in the facilities where potential is the greatest (so much for those Google Glass-augmented surgeries). The so-called “spectrum crunch” problem is only going to worsen as more and more Wi-Fi-capable devices ship–15 billion of them by 2017, predicts Cisco.

On paper, gigabit Wi-Fi is a promising antidote, but for it to proliferate, the FCC would need to open up access to the 5 GHz band, working with tech companies to ensure that there’s no interference with existing systems operating there. To that end, Cisco (which, like Comcast, stands to profit handsomely from gigabit Wi-Fi) has put forward a conceptual proposal for how to handle that.

So how soon can you fire up your gigabit Wi-Fi modem and get blazing fast wireless speeds? There’s no hard deadline for a decision, a Cisco spokesperson told us. Right now, the FCC and Congress are exploring the feasibility of opening up the 5 GHz band for Wi-Fi, with a final decision coming from the FCC at some point in the future. In the meantime, well, maybe you could try resetting your modem. That usually helps.


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