The science behind Wi-Fi technology can seem abstract and disconnected from its day-to-day use by consumers. However, recent technological developments present a real threat to the speed and reliability of Wi-Fi networks that so many of us use today. Next Century Cities held a webinar for our members this week to offer more information and ways to engage on this emerging issue.
Right now, communities and consumers use public airwaves to access Wi-Fi, which travel across unlicensed broadband spectrum. All Americans using Wi-Fi, including in our schools, homes, hospitals, libraries, and municipal buildings, rely on these airwaves for wireless internet access.
Cell phone companies are starting to deploy a new wireless technology called Unlicensed LTE, or LTE-U, which allows cell phone data traffic to use the same band of spectrum as consumer Wi-Fi. Cell phone companies want to use LTE-U to expand service and offload cell phone data traffic onto publicly owned unlicensed spectrum, in addition to the licensed spectrum that they already own.
Why is new LTE-U technology problematic?
As currently designed, this new LTE-U technology from cell phone companies interferes with the speed and reliability of current Wi-Fi networks, by “talking over” and “dominating” operating networks.
Unregulated LTE-U technology may have particularly severe consequences on free outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots and those who rely on these hotspots for internet access. A study by Broadcom found that unregulated LTE-U technology could reduce coverage of certain kinds of popular outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots by 90%.
LTE-U technologies can be designed to fairly coexist with current Wi-Fi networks. However, these sharing features must be built in before widespread deployment, or it will be too late to go back and add them in after the fact. Standards can be put in place now to ensure that LTE-U technologies have built in coexistence features to fairly share unlicensed spectrum.
Why does this matter for cities?
The interference of unregulated LTE-U will undermine investments cities have already made in existing wireless network infrastructure and diminish all citizens’ ability to access high-quality, reliable access.
Communities have a strong stake in preserving high-quality Wi-Fi access for their citizens. Many businesses and community institutions rely on wireless technologies, including anchor institutions such as libraries, hospitals, and schools, as well as an increasing number of modernized municipal operations. If LTE-U usage goes unregulated, organizations and individuals will have to choose between significantly reduced coverage or increased equipment costs.
This new technology will also devalue significant infrastructure investments made by a growing number of communities who are aiming to decrease the digital divide through community wireless programs.
What can cities do?
Now is the time to learn more about the impact of unregulated LTE-U and then speak out in favor of regulation on the front end to ensure LTE-U technologies are designed to fairly coexist with current Wi-Fi networks.
For example, New York City has been working to increase internet access for all residents through public domain and public housing development projects, and officials are concerned that LTE-U will interfere with their investments. To engage in the conversation, New York City recently wrote a letter to the international standards body 3GPP and the Federal Communications Commision to request involvement in testing.
We encourage communities to learn more about these developments and urge regulators to take action!
Learn more about this important issue by checking out the resources below:
Next Century Cities’ Members Webinar: Protecting Public Wi-Fi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyFYtti_fA8&feature=youtu.be
CTC Technology and Energy: LTE-U Interference in Unlicensed Spectrum: the Impact on Local Communities and Recommended Solutions