WiFi, the ubiquitous wireless technology that allows devices to connect to the internet over a local connection, isn’t performing as well as it used to.
While fixing the issue presents some significant challenges, most of them regulatory, the time is right to make a start.
When WiFi was first invented in early 1990’s (a key part of the invention was made by Australia’s CSIRO), we were not connecting many devices to the internet, indeed the internet itself was hardly used by the general population back then. Since then the growth in smart phones and tablets and increasingly the “internet of things”, all using WiFi, has been phenomenal.
The attraction of WiFi is obvious – the ability to avoid having to run wires or cables to the device being used. Indeed many devices (particularly from Apple) really have no other way to connect to the internet other than WiFi. Couple that with the sheer growth in internet traffic (video being an obvious example) and the whole WiFi system is creaking at the seams.
So what’s the problem? The problem isn’t with the technology, but with the amount of spectrum that is allocated to it, how much interference there is and that there are no strong rules for use of this space . Spectrum in someways is like real-estate. Governments regulate it and essentially own it, leasing it out to the highest bidder (typically telcos or broadcasters). Spectrum is used for many different applications such as radio communication, TV, radio and most obviously mobile phones. The spectrum is measured in frequency (Hz) and as a rough rule of thumb, the higher the frequency the less distance it will travel. So the government leases out spectrum in physical areas, at the higher frequencies these areas are smaller.
However there are a couple of parts of the spectrum that were considered unusable for leasing out because they had too much interference from medical equipment, microwave ovens and the like. So the governments around the world left them free for anyone to use without a licence. These are the frequencies used by WiFi. So the part of the spectrum that many people use for the going about their daily work and entertainment is this relatively tiny area that the governments didn’t care about. It’s like the government took all the prime real estate, leased it out and left the rest of us with the rubbish dump.
To make matters worse the rules for using this spectrum are pretty lax and there’s nothing to stop one device from interfering with another. Unlike, say, the mobile phone system where the tower essentially controls who can transmit and when, to keep each phone from interfering with another. As an aside this is one of the reasons you shouldn’t use a mobile phone in an airplane – unlike on the ground – your signals travel much further and interfere with neighbouring areas (cells).
If you live in the city and do a scan around for the number of WiFi networks, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of them. All these separate networks are all using the same spectrums where only one device can transmit at a time. It’s no wonder that the networks start slowing down as messages have to be retransmitted. It’s like trying to shout across a nightclub. To make matters worse, the tendency is to get more and more powerful transmitters (though the regulations limit their overall power) to try and break through this noise. This of course has a detrimental effect on everyone else.
I’ve seen businesses decide that for convenience (or to avoid the cost of cabling) they’re going to go entirely wireless and then wonder why despite their super-fast internet connection they’re seeing buffering and slowdowns when they try to make a Skype call.
So what can be done?
The only real fix is to get more spectrum allocated. This will require lobbying of governments and agreement with the tech industry, who will have to design new devices to make use of it. Hopefully they will also agree a tighter protocol for managing this spectrum such that otherwise interfering networks can negotiate with each other. There is a new standard call 802.11n, which uses a higher frequency (so can pass much more data), but unfortunately it also uses another section of the spectrum that no-one wanted – it also travels a shorter distance.
It’s time that a decent area of the spectrum (and lots of it) was allocated for everyone to use. This is an important area of our lives and commerce and we deserve better than just having the bits of the spectrum that no-one else wants.
In the meantime my recommendation is that you use WiFi sparingly. There is no question that it’s extremely convenient, so use it when you need to, but avoid using it when it is possible to cable it in. For example when you buy an internet enabled TV, make sure it has an ethernet socket and use it. Video is extremely heavy on a network and putting this over WiFi is asking for trouble.
Launtel Business customers can already ask our advice for their individual office setup. After all, we’re investing a lot in providing you a fast and reliable NBN service, the last thing we want is it slowing down because of crowded Wi-Fi!