Wifi usually works so well that most people never give it much thought. You set up a wifi device in your house, and — as if by magic — every device in the house is connected to the internet.
But the technology has real limitations. Wifi chips can communicate only on certain frequencies, and as the technology has gotten more popular, those frequencies have gotten more and more crowded. Sometimes this causes download speeds to slow to a crawl.
New legislation from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) aims to address this problem by expanding the number of frequencies wifi chips can use to communicate. However, the new frequencies have been slated for use in advanced car-to-car communication technology that could help prevent car crashes in the future. The big question is whether it's possible for these technologies to coexist.
Wifi frequencies are getting crowded
When you use the mobile service offered by companies like Verizon or T-Mobile, your communications are sent using frequencies that are set aside for the exclusive use of that company. These frequencies don't come cheap. For example, the FCC just wrapped up a big spectrum auction that generated $45 billion in revenues for the federal government.
Wifi is different. It uses frequencies that have been designated for unlicensed use, meaning that anyone can use them for any purpose, so long as they follow certain "rules of the road." This is why many wifi networks don't require a subscription — the spectrum needed to run them is open to the public.
But the federal government has only provided a limited number of "channels" for wifi communication. In sparsely inhabited areas, this isn't a problem, as there's plenty of spectrum to go around. But in dense urban areas, competition for capacity can be fierce. For example, right now there are 17 different wifi networks within range of my laptop. Two or three of them are mine; the rest belong to my neighbors.
The effect is similar to what happens at a crowded party: the more people (or mobile devices) there are trying to be heard, the harder it is for any single "speaker" to get a message across, especially from across the room.
At parties, there's nothing to be done but stand closer together and shout louder. But with wireless networks, there is an alternative: allocate more frequencies for use by wifi chips. That's what Booker and Rubio's legislation would do.
Currently, wifi networks in the United States (and much of the world) use two different frequency bands. Most older wifi chips communicate at frequencies between 2.4 and 2.5 GHz. Newer chips can also broadcast at frequencies between 5.1 GHz and 5.825 GHz (though not all of the frequencies in this latter range are available yet — the FCC has been working for years to open more of these frequencies for wifi uses).
Booker and Rubio's legislation would encourage the FCC to widen that second band further, opening frequencies between 5.825 GHz and 5.95 GHz for use by wifi networks.
Smart transportation companies and wifi vendors want to use the same frequencies
The problem with this proposal is that these frequencies have already been designated for car-to-car communications. The technology is still under development, but the idea is that increasingly smart vehicles will be able to share information that helps them avoid crashes.
Rubio and Booker's bill has received a chilly reception from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a coalition of government agencies and for-profit companies that are working on these technologies. The US Department of Transportation, which is developing standards for the technology, is also skeptical. These groups worry that interference from wifi chips will hamper vehicle-to-vehicle communications, making the latter technology less useful.
But advocates for the legislation say this problem can be solved with technology. Newer wireless chips have the ability to listen in on a particular frequency and check whether it's in use. If a wifi chip detects that there are nearby cars using the 5.9 GHz frequency band, it could transmit on another frequency instead.
Rubio and Booker want to require the FCC to study the feasibility of this approach and develop a plan for opening frequencies near 5.9 GHz up to wifi-style unlicensed uses. However, this plan would only go forward if the FCC determines that it can be done without interfering with others already using the frequency, including the nascent vehicle-to-vehicle technology.
"Spectrum is a valuable yet limited resource that must be utilized effectively and efficiently," Rubio said in a statement last month. "By requiring the FCC to conduct testing that would provide more spectrum to the public, we are ultimately putting the resource to better use."
Wifi could become even more important in the future
Expanding the spectrum available for wifi will be especially important if — as some experts anticipate — people increasingly use wifi as a substitute for conventional cellular service. A startup called Republic Wireless has pioneered a technique that allows cell phones to seamlessly switch between wifi and cellular networks, reducing demand for scarce cellular bandwidth. Google is rumored to be developing a wireless service of its own that would employ a similar business model.
If this model goes mainstream, the use of wifi networks could grow at an even faster pace in the next few years. Rubio and Booker's legislation would help to expand the capacity of these networks.
"Access to wireless spectrum opens the door for innovation and transformative new technologies," Booker said last month. "It can help bridge the digital divide that leaves too many low-income communities removed from the evolving technology landscape."
Rubio and Booker introduced their legislation in the Senate last month, and a bipartisan group of legislators introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives at the same time.
The legislation enjoys support from public interest groups such as the American Library Association and Public Knowledge, and the idea of expanding wifi is popular with technology companies such as Google and Microsoft. But the bill hasn't yet been taken up by either house of Congress.