If YouMarch 11, 2013
Whether or not you’re in Austin for SXSW, click here and sign a petition to show your support for open networks!
Events like South by Southwest can highlight the limitations of wireless Internet access. Put a large number of techies in the same city and as they all try to tweet, share photos, and stay connected they can quickly saturate Internet connections–leading to websites not loading, messages not being sent, and connections dropping.
Engineers have already solved this problem–but there are legal challenges as well as technical challenges. Policymakers in DC have to make sure that FCC rules allow people to take advantage of new wireless technologies that are already being built. They need to set WiFi free.
What causes existing connections to get so slow? Sometimes the wireless connection is overcrowded–there are just more people trying to use a WiFi connection at the same time than the system can handle. There are a few ways to handle this–we can wait a few years for new wireless technologies that better handle congestion to come out. But this is not going to be helpful to someone who is organizing a conference today. Or, you can add more access points–meaning that there are fewer users on average per access point, communicating over a shorter distance. This is usually the most practical way to handle congestion.
The first bottleneck is that, with large events like SXSW you may install as many access points as practical and it’s still not enough. In that circumstance, you need more bandwidth per access point–which means, more wireless spectrum. Given how important free, unlicensed uses of the airwaves like WiFi are, it’s surprising how little spectrum is available for it to use (and how well it usually works with what little it has). This is why Public Knowledge has worked for years with the FCC, other public interest groups, and technologists to free up more of the public airwaves for this vital purpose.
The second bottleneck is “backhaul”–at certain very large events no matter how good the wireless access itself is, the access points themselves can run out of bandwidth on the cable or fiber connections they use to connect up with the Internet at large. There may be one or two routers that are holding things up or there just might not be enough wired connections to go around–meaning that even if you install new access points, you have nothing to hook them up to.
The We Heart WiFi project addresses both of these bottlenecks brilliantly, and shows how things can get better as engineers develop new technologies that take advantage of spectrum that the FCC frees up. Recently, what’s called “white spaces” spectrum has become available for unlicensed use. Eventually, users will have devices that use this spectrum directly–but most of those products are still in development. The We Heart WiFi project has come up with a clever hack–they have deployed a bunch of traditional WiFi access points throughout Austin, but they use the new spectrum as backhaul, instead of wired connections. Thus, in addition to creating a lot of new access points (which is already helpful), when you connect to one of these access points your Internet traffic is no longer traveling through the same congested wired connections the rest of SXSW is using. Instead, your traffic is wirelessly transmitted elsewhere where it can join up with the Internet in a less crowded area.
Just being able to use new wireless backhaul is helpful. But as the FCC frees up more spectrum for unlicensed uses, and as consumer devices come to market that can take advantage of this new spectrum, connectivity will just get better. Events like SXSW will be able to serve the same number of people with less equipment, using less energy. Connections will be faster and more reliable. We Heart WiFi is just a preview of what’s to come as long as policymakers continue to recognize the importance of unlicensed Internet access, and ensure it has the resources it needs to be truly great.
About John Bergmayer
John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders — including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators — have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.