Apr 13, 2020 - Technology

WiFi, crunched by coronavirus, is set for a boost

Illustration of coffee cup with wifi steam

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With the coronavirus pandemic binding Americans to their home internet service, policymakers are moving to bolster the WiFi networks those homes use.

The big picture: WiFi use has already been exploding as consumers connect more devices to their home broadband networks, a trend that's only accelerated with the coronavirus. Yet it's been years since the spectrum dedicated to carrying that load has been expanded.

Driving the news: The Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve a plan to augment WiFi capacity this month.

  • Chairman Ajit Pai's order would make 1,200 megahertz of additional spectrum available for WiFi use, creating the capacity for new WiFi use cases, such as immersive online learning.

Why it matters: The broadband connections into Americans' homes appear to be holding up against the recent surge in residential traffic, but WiFi still poses a potential bottleneck.

  • That's particularly the case in densely populated areas, where many people's WiFi signals are crammed into the swaths of airwaves currently set aside for the technology.
  • "The internet is WiFi," said Carl Leuschner, senior vice president of Charter Communications' internet and voice products. "If WiFi is not great, the internet will not be great for consumers — that is how they connect.”

By the numbers: Cable companies reported a 19% increase in peak downstream traffic and a 33% increase in peak upstream traffic since March 1, according to data compiled by cable trade group NCTA.

  • That means an increase in WiFi use. Charter, for instance, notes that more than 90% of devices on its network connect via WiFi.
  • "In many households, daytime internet traffic has doubled, even tripled from pre-pandemic levels," Charter's chief technology officer Stephanie Mitchko-Beale said. But demand continues to peak during the evening between 8pm and 9pm.
  • The company's network supports more than 300 million IP devices, and about 80% of the wireless data consumed on its customers' mobile devices arrives via WiFi.

Yes, but: The changes the FCC has in store for WiFi won't be immediate. New routers, laptops and phones that can use the newly opened airwaves will have to be manufactured and rolled out to customers first.

  • Broadcom's Chris Szymanski, director of product marketing and government affairs, estimated that could happen by the end of the year, and customers who don't immediately upgrade could still benefit.
  • "As this is launched, this takes the strain off the existing networks," Szymanski said. "If only two of your neighbors aren’t using the spectrum anymore, your experience is going to improve."
  • That could mean relief for people whose WiFi is now suffering, should the pandemic's impact on how people live and work prove lasting.

What they're saying: "The biggest benefit consumers will see is ... faster speeds to the consumer device," NCTA vice president and associate general counsel Danielle Piñeres told Axios. "That’s going to be huge for video streaming, for video conferencing."

  • But wireless trade group CTIA wanted the agency to make some of the airwaves Pai plans to allocate to WiFi available instead for licensed, 5G use.
  • "While the FCC has done a remarkable job freeing up critical licensed spectrum for 5G, the United States faces a growing mid-band deficit," CTIA executive vice president Brad Gillen said in a statement. "It is essential that the FCC and the administration develop a roadmap to close this deficit before moving forward with plans to give away the full 1,200 MHz in the 6 GHz band and further limit our few remaining options.”

Meanwhile: The FCC did make more airwaves available immediately last month for wireless broadband providers, largely in rural areas.

  • 33 wireless internet service providers received temporary approval to use spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band to meet demand from the coronavirus pandemic. Those airwaves are currently allotted for vehicle safety communications, but the FCC is separately mulling changes to the band.
  • "With more people teleworking and more students learning from home, our members have seen an increase in demand for new installations as well as for increasing service to places that already have broadband," said Claude Aiken, president of the Wireless Internet Service Provider's Association.
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