Not Sniffing, But... The FCC's 3.5 GHz WiFi Proposal

I have some interesting stuff about the topic that this blog is supposed to be about (WiFi sniffing) coming soon.  I promise.  But the FCC made some news concerning WiFi today, and I want to help people understand it.

This post is happening because of what the FCC did in March, 2014.  What the FCC actually did was (probably) kill WiFi channels 52 to 144 by imposing new rules (the effects of which we have yet to see, because APs approved by the FCC prior to March, 2014 do not have to follow the new rules) that make WiFi devices more likely to work poorly when Doppler RADAR is on those channels.  What the FCC claimed they did was "increase availability of spectrum for high speed, high capacity" WiFi.

Technically, the FCC can claim to be something other than liars.  The March, 2014 rules did increase spectrum availability in a narrow sample of use cases.  What was really going on, however, was the FCC doing the bidding of Doppler RADAR operators (who, possibly-not-so-coincidentally have a far stronger lobbying presence in Washington, DC than the check-cashers at the WiFi Alliance have) at the expense of WiFi.

Today, we have news of a new FCC plan that would affect WiFi (big tip-of-the-cap to Mike Leibovitz of Extreme Networks for linking to this on Twitter).  I want to explain what this would actually mean for WiFi and for the wireless industry in general.

The FCC plan would open up the 3.5 GHz band (from 3.55 GHz to 3.65 GHz initially; probably expanding to 3.7 GHz at some point in the future).  It would be open on three levels:

-Existing governmental services (military, etc.) would be protected.  You would not be allowed to use 3.5 GHz WiFi near a Navy shipyard, for example.

-The FCC would auction off 10 MHz channels (which would NOT be allowed to be bonded together to make wider channels) and make them licensed (meaning, non-WiFi) in one year increments.  The auctions would be by census area, so companies would not have to be national to win these auctions and use this spectrum.  (More on this later.)

-If there are no governmental services in the area and if there is no licensed 3.5 GHz in an area, then the channels would be unlicensed (meaning, WiFi would work on them if APs and devices start getting fitted with tri-band (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 3.5 GHz) radios.

Great news!  More WiFi channels!

But...

I'm not so sure that this would be great for alleviating WiFi problems in high-density areas.

I went to WrestleMania yesterday (story time!) at Levi's Stadium.  The Levi's Stadium WiFi deployment was the highest profile WiFi deployment I've ever seen.  (Google it, you'll see.)  The WiFi is great in the concourses, the "club" area and, importantly, the Fantasy Football Lounge (I lost to My Brother in the Finals.  Painful!).  But it is not great (or even, good) in the seating bowl.  Now, there are valid criticisms of the way the seating bowl WiFi at Levi's Stadium was designed (my opinion is that omni-directional antennas under seats was a bad idea, and that direction antennas in railings, like Cisco does, would have worked a lot better), but the bottom line is that the cellular service was better than the WiFi was at my seat.  And I think that we (WiFi folks) should take a lesson from that.

What I'm saying is, we should EMBRACE cellular as a way to offload users in high density areas.

And that's why I have a problem with the FCC's proposal for 3.5 GHz.  The FCC proposal for 3.5 GHz is anti-cellular.  Cellular providers want to use a technology called LTE-unlicensed (LTE-U, sometimes called LAA) in 3.5 GHz.  The FCC's proposal effectively would ban LTE-U in the 3.5 GHz band because it would not allow for channel bonding and it would require detection protocols that are simply different from what LTE-U does.  I want LTE-U to be successful because I think that it will allow high-density WiFi areas to have larger percentages of users connect via cellular.  (My dream scenario for Levi's Stadium, for example, would be having my data go over an LTE-U network while the Levi's Stadium app tracks my location [for ordering food, finding short restroom lines, etc.] using the Probing that my iPhone's WiFi radio is doing.)

Now, I should point out that I simply don't know how easy or difficult it would be to change LTE-U so that it would fit the FCC's proposed rules for 3.5 GHz.  Maybe it's simple, and the cellular providers are pitching a fit for political reasons.  But I have a feeling that Google -- a company that has an unusually friendly relationship with the current bosses of the FCC -- is trying to keep cellular providers away because cellular providers are NEVER, EVER (I know: never, ever say "never, ever") going to let Google insert ads the way Google allegedly (I should say that for legal purposes) wants to do.

(Also, effectively banning LTE-U/LAA from 3.5 GHz would likely drive down the final bidding price in an auction, thus costing the U.S. Treasury money.  But I know that some of you live outside the U.S., and thus probably don't care.)

Anywho, you might disagree with me.  You might think that effectively banning LTE-U/LAA from 3.5 GHz is a good thing.  But the important thing is that you understand that this is what the FCC is proposing.  So, read Tom Wheeler's blog (::coughbullshitcough::) all you want, but also please make yourselves aware of what is really happening concerning the possibility of 3.5 GHz WiFi.
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