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Spectrum wars: the cellphone menace

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As demand by mobile operators for increased access to wireless spectrum continues, many of them have begun eyeing out the already-crowded WiFi spectrum.
While these operators suggest that this will ultimately be beneficial to end-users, WiFi players are quick to point out that allowing this could see WiFi performance plummet, thereby significantly reducing consumers’ choice in terms of wireless broadband access.
To try and provide answers to this conundrum, an unconventional panel session took place at the recent Internetix 2016 event in Johannesburg, with both sides of the equation represented. At the heart of the discussion was whether there are tangible benefits to allowing the mobile operators to play in the licence-exempt industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) band, or whether this will be detrimental on the whole.
According to Raj Wanniappa, executive deputy chairperson of the WiFi Forum SA, WiFi is becoming increasingly important and critical to the success of data access via devices such as tablets, smartphones and laptops. Critically, WiFi is and will play an important role in the future of the Internet of Things devices. This will result in the ISM bands (2,4GHz and 5GHz) being increasingly congested.
“Allowing mobile operators to utilise so-called Licence Assisted Access (LAA) technology to not only carry traffic in their licensed band, but also co-ordinate and transmit in the ISM band using LTE technology is worrying. After all, WiFi technology is designed from scratch to share spectrum with any other user, while LTE is designed with the assumption it will be the only user,” he says.
“The success of technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the licence-exempt ISM band is evidence of the economic advantage of unlicensed spectrum and shows that it is possible to use spectrum more efficiently than is typically the case in licensed bands. Furthermore, while technologies like LTE promise over 100Mbps, they seldom deliver more than 20Mbps to users. When you add to this the fact that WiFi will be the preferred standard for Internet of Things (IoT) over cellular, Bluetooth, NFC or Zigbee, it seems obvious that the best result here would be for the status quo to remain – mobile operators keep using their licensed spectrum and leave the licence-exempt portion to WiFi operators.”
Vodacom’s head of innovation Jannie van Zyl, points out the importance of quality of service, and the fact that this can only be ensured by tight regulation – something the ISM bands certainly do not have at present.
“Mobile operators also offer ubiquity of devices, in that cell phones can all talk to one another across the globe on well built-out networks. Unlike in the ISM band, where there are a multitude of small users and disparate systems, which means it is only a matter of time before Wi-Fi networks collapse under their own weight,” he says.
“Of course, we don’t see this issue as being one of mobile operators versus Wi-Fi operators, but rather as a situation where we want to work together to ensure services, spectrum and co-existence of all operators in these licence-exempt bands. All we are asking for is for us all to work together and manage this spectrum better, so we can all make use of it.”
Wanniappa counters by suggesting that both technologies have their advantages. Mobile is definitely easier to use, but WiFi is much cheaper and is more consistent in terms of its throughput.
“The key here is to remember that LTE was designed to work in exclusive spectrum, whereas Wi-Fi is specifically designed to work in an arena rife with competing transmissions. And as for ubiquity, today virtually every tech device available has a Wi-Fi connection as standard.
“Ultimately, you could make the analogy that Wi-Fi is very much like open source systems, while mobile is much closer to proprietary systems. Therefore, regulating the Wi-Fi environment too much will stifle innovation, negatively impact on the smaller Wi-Fi players and do little more than allow the mobile operators to capitalise on the commercial opportunities available in what is essentially supposed to be a free arena,” he adds.