Wi-Fi first? – William Webb, Regulatory and Spectrum Expert, Real Wireless

In developing wireless communications over the past three decades we have been chasing ever-faster speeds and ever higher capacity. This has delivered astonishing benefits for all of us that have truly transformed our lives. But the speed of data connection is now becoming less important than consistency – the ability to be connected at a reasonable speed everywhere. Rather than aiming for ever-faster connections it suggests that delivering enhanced coverage in a number of known problematic locations such as trains and rural areas would generate greater value for the economy and be preferred by most consumers. These problems have persisted throughout the broadband era but the technology and inclination to tackle them is now emerging.

In most of the locations where connectivity is difficult Wi-Fi is a better solution than cellular, with the exception of coverage in rural areas. Wi-Fi provision on trains enables more productive journeys. Wi-Fi in buildings increasingly enables voice calling as well as data access. Wi-Fi can also provide very high capacity in stadium and the 60GHz ‘Wi-Gig’ variant can enable Gbits/s links within rooms. This reflects a trend that has been underway for years towards increasing use and reliance on Wi-Fi to the extent that it is now the preferred method of communication for most. Our cellphones typically send around 85% of their data traffic over Wi-Fi and our tablets and laptops typically 100%. That we live in a ‘Wi-Fi first’ world is only slowly being realized across the industry – developing policies for such a world is becoming increasingly important for governments and regulators.

The end result – connectivity everywhere – would be one well worth striving for. A great road system is no longer one with unlimited maximum speed, but one with minimal congestion and excellent safety. A great communications system is one available everywhere, all the time with minimal congestion and at low cost. I am excited by the prospects that we might now be able to step off the ‘data rate’ escalator and focus on delivering a solution that meets everyone’s needs wherever they are.

One of my particular skills is in the regulation of radio spectrum and wireless communications – I spent seven years at Ofcom and have written two books on this topic. Our current regulatory framework devotes much attention to licensed spectrum for cellular and competition policies amongst mobile operators. It is time to reassess that framework, with increased focus on spectrum for Wi-Fi and with a changed competition policy that recognizes the world of mobile communications and the interests of the citizen-consumer will look quite different five years from now.