Ofcom’s plan to expand Wi-Fi is laudable – but it’s not enough

If, day after day, your commute to work was mostly spent stuck in a traffic jam, then finding a quieter, alternative route would be a priority.

In much the same way, as people are finding their home Wi-Fi to be unreliable, they are looking for alternatives. Thanks to the technology’s popularity in homes, offices, coffee shops, and now, even in taxis and buses, a stable Wi-Fi connection can be difficult to maintain, especially in built-up areas.

By switching to a router that uses 5GHz Wi-Fi instead of the more common and more congested 2.4GHz band, users find that by taking this alternative route, not only are they enjoying a better connection, but faster speeds are possible too.

The 5GHz band has been used for Wi-Fi for longer than 2.4GHz, but until recently it hasn’t seen much use by consumers. But thanks to this congestion and the relatively new 802.11ac standard allowing faster speeds, the 5GHz band is increasingly popular. Additionally, due to less uptake, other systems have looked to take advantage of the 5GHz band - most wireless set-top-boxes are based on a hidden Wi-Fi network in 5GHz. This relatively untapped resource is great news for early adopters, but what happens when more devices are compatible with 5GHz and more people start using it?

Ofcom, the communications regulator, has spotted this upcoming problem, and is looking to head off congestion by 'widening the road'. The regulator plans to make available one block between 5725-5850MHz, with longer term plans for the 5350-5470MHz and 5150-5350MHz blocks. By making more channels available, more devices and routers will be able to use this band, and higher speeds will be possible.

Rather than waiting for 5GHz to become congested to take action, Ofcom is sensibly looking ahead to alleviate the inevitable congestion: 'People are placing greater demands on their broadband, so we need to ensure they aren’t let down by their wireless connection.'

Widening a road to solve congestion doesn’t work

Increasing the amount of 'room' available for 5GHz Wi-Fi will not be a long-term solution to the issue of congested Wi-Fi bands. Data demands are only going to increase as people use mobile devices to stream video in the home or use services such as Skype and Facetime. Plus, the additional speed of 5GHz Wi-Fi comes at a cost – it uses aggregated 'pipes' of 20, 40, 80, or even 160 MHz chunks to provide more bandwidth and faster speeds. But this means the spectrum is likely to be used in bigger chunks, and devices and access points will contend for these larger blocks of bandwidth.

Crucially, the increased 'supply' of available bandwidth is only going to be a temporary solution to the problem. Increased supply leads to increased demand. Again, this is similar to traffic congestion; if a new bypass is opened, making commute times shorter, this encourages more people to use cars. The net result is that commute times will remain the same as congestion increases.

We can see this from actual roads - when the Katy Freeway in Houston was widened at a cost of $2.8bn (£2bn), congestion actually got worse. Travel time has actually increased rather than gone down since the expansion.

Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down a little when we realise that the solutions to car congestion and Wi-Fi congestion are different. Congestion charges, bike lanes and ride-sharing initiatives have no Wi-Fi equivalent.

But what both have in common is that 'widening the road' is not the whole solution. As there needs to be better management of traffic, there must be better management of Wi-Fi. Ofcom locating parts of the spectrum that can be used for Wi-Fi or shared with other types of use is laudable, but it is the service provider that needs to step up and manage the consumer Wi-Fi experience.

Committing to an excellent customer experience

Currently, most Internet service providers simply install the access point, when they should be providing management and optimisation that ensures much more efficient usage of all Wi-Fi bands. These radio resource management schemes will play a key role in mitigating congestion and interference, and in ensuring that the right network resources are allocated to the right devices at the right time.

If service providers do not commit to offering an exceptional Wi-Fi experience alongside their promises of super-fast broadband, then customers will lose patience and will purchase emerging high-end Wi-Fi access points such as Eero or Luma to manage and improve their own Wi-Fi experience. Service providers should instead look for avenues to expand available bandwidth and leverage capacity as efficiently as possible. If service providers engage with the problem of congestion, they have an opportunity to offer a valuable additional service to their customers.

Narayan Menon, CTO, XCellAir