Wi-Fi, invented in 1997, is one of the world’s most popular networking technologies. Just about every router, laptop, smartphone, and tablet has it built in, be it the original 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) signaling scheme, the newer 5 GHz system, or both (as supported by the 802.11n standard).
Wi-Fi has brought Internet connectivity to airports, hotel lobbies, libraries, and coffee shops.
Like other great wireless communication innovations of recent years, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi exists in the unlicensed spectrum. Electrically similar to the ethernet found in wired local area networks (LANs) but wireless, Wi-Fi’s multimegabit capacity is its best feature.
It can move data at a rate of 54 megabits per second (Mbps) over short distances for most 802.11g connections. Indeed, Wi-Fi has spurred mobile phone carriers to deal with the exponential growth in smartphone data use by working out clever ways of offloading their data traffic to the nearest Wi-Fi access points.
Even so, Wi-Fi’s greatest limitation is the distance over which it delivers acceptable bandwidth — usually a few hundred feet, or less because of walls, signal interference and other impedances.
A new, longer-range broadband wireless technology has now appeared. Called “super Wi-Fi” by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it actually has nothing to do with classic Wi-Fi. Super Wi-Fi encompasses a number of alternative wireless access solutions, and TV “white spaces” (TVWS) which are vacant broadcasting frequencies used by television networks to serve as boundary gaps between the old 6 MHz television channels.
TVWS spectrum is situated at lower frequencies than conventional Wi-Fi, particularly in the UHF (470-698MHz) band. Since these lower frequencies enable super Wi-Fi to achieve an effective range of many miles, super Wi-Fi at first appears to be a great idea.
Unfortunately, super Wi-Fi has nothing to do with the family of genuine, interoperable Wi-Fi devices. Its moniker alone is problematic: In a 2012 press release, the Wi-Fi Alliance complained that “The technology touted as ‘super Wi-Fi’ does not interoperate with the billions of Wi-Fi devices in use today,” and “Wi-Fi is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance and the term ‘super Wi-Fi’ is not an authorized extension of the brand.”
Moreover, what super Wi-Fi makes up for in distance, in loses in bandwidth and coverage. (It tops out at 29 Mbps.) Wireless broadband entrepreneur Brough Turner, in a Newsmax interview, said that since super Wi-Fi channels are at lower frequencies, they have little data-carrying capacity compared to conventional 20, 40 and 80 MHz wide Wi-Fi channels.
He stated: “Inherently the data capacity [of super Wi-Fi] is limited, and in urban areas there are few or zero available channels. So it’s really a rural technology, because it’s designed for coverage, not capacity. Of course, that means that the market is a tiny fraction of the market for regular Wi-Fi stuff. So the volumes may stay low and it may take a long time for the technology to be deployed. It’s not likely to reach the economic leverage that 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi has enjoyed, because the latter two are used extensively in offices and homes.”
Turner added: “Conventional Wi-Fi has incredible sales volume — billions of units a year, which drives down the cost and allows the fixed wireless ISP industry to leverage mass market silicon for unconventional uses. I don’t see that happening with so-called super Wi-Fi.”
There does exist a working group for a proposal for a standard called IEEE 802.11af or “White-Fi,” which has 6 MHz channels in the 470–710 MHz frequency range. Many experts, however, claim that what should be touted as “genuine” super Wi-Fi is really the new 802.11ac standard (approved January 2014) running in the 5 GHz band, having eight spatial data streams and channels up to 80 MHz wide that can be combined into 160 MHz channels for a theoretical maximum throughput of about a 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) in a base configuration and 6 Gbps in its most sophisticated “beamforming” configuration.
Even so, 802.11ac will probably never achieve more than about a third of those figures under normal operating conditions.
Over time, however, as new technologies appear, many cabled LANs will slowly be transformed into wireless systems. With the exception of highly bandwidth-intensive fiber installations, the convenience and money saved in using wireless is just too attractive to pass up.
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