Israel is considering banning mobile operators from offering internet access through Wi-Fi hotspots, reports Globes (link in Hebrew), a business newspaper. According to the paper, spectrum is in such short supply that the use by large telecoms operators of unlicensed radio frequency set aside for things like Wi-Fi, microwaves and garage door openers is clogging the system. The frequency will stay open for Wi-Fi networks belonging to individuals, businesses such as restaurants and shopping malls, and local municipal authorities. But not wireless carriers. The communications ministry is expected to issue a notice this week.
Most radio frequency, whether it is used for television broadcasts, cellphone calls and 3G or 4G data connections, police scanners or, well, radio, is licensed through auction. There is only a limited amount of frequency available for commercial uses, and even less for unlicensed use. That small slice is used mostly by small-area Wi-Fi routers: in homes, officers, parks, restaurants, cafes, shopping malls and airports. As long as it remains local, several routers can use it at the same time. The problem with carrier Wi-Fi is that it spreads like a blanket across entire cities, effectively blocking out part of the available spectrum to anyone else.
For carriers, Wi-Fi is a sweet deal. They pay large amounts to license the spectrum they use for calls and data. The more data users want, the more spectrum the carriers need. If they can offload people from 3G/4G to Wi-Fi at peak times, that means they’re getting all the benefits of offering internet service without the extra costs. However, it’s probably not essential for their customers. As Dean Bubley, a consultant, writes on his blog, in places like Israel, which abounds with free Wi-Fi at cafes and shops, there is arguably little point in covering the city with yet more of it.
But Israel’s decision points to an interesting problem: What happens when the rest of the world hits peak Wi-Fi?
To be sure, Israel is in a worse bind than most countries. Globes reports that the communications ministry found it had only 200 MHz of spectrum available for Wi-Fi, by contrast with the US and European countries, both of which have around 500 MHz. But in the US, Wi-Fi congestion has already prompted a proposal to borrow some spectrum currently allocated to satellite communications and assign it to Wi-Fi. As unlicensed spectrum becomes ever busier, fixes like Israel’s may become more widespread.