A plan by a satellite carrier to make better use of its spectrum could open up an extra channel for Wi-Fi in the U.S., though how and when consumers would get to use it isn't yet clear.
The proposal that satellite operator Globalstar submitted to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this month could lead to a variety of different outcomes, even if the company gets everything it wants from the agency. But a central part of the plan is to allow Wi-Fi users access to a fourth channel in the most commonly used Wi-Fi band, which is available in some countries, such as Japan, but not yet in the U.S.
The extra channel could mean better Wi-Fi performance, especially in locations where a lot of people are using Wi-Fi, such as large public venues and crowded urban hotspots.
Globalstar sells voice and data services over a network of satellites and has about 540,000 customers worldwide. But like other service providers that rely on space-based infrastructure, including LightSquared and Dish Network, Globalstar wants to be able to use its spectrum for faster mobile networks installed on Earth. One part of the company's plan is to use its spectrum for a 4G LTE network, just as the other satellite carriers are proposing. In the meantime, Globalstar wants approval to offer an extra channel on certain Wi-Fi LANs.
Using satellite spectrum for land-based, or terrestrial, networks is a controversial idea that has forced other applicants through multiple regulatory hoops. But in its bid for a so-called terrestrial mobile license, Globalstar has a valuable bargaining chip: The company owns a nationwide U.S. license for part of the spectrum that's defined internationally for use in Wi-Fi. Though residents of some other countries get four usable channels on the most commonly used Wi-Fi band, around 2400MHz, Globalstar's license on the top end of that band has prevented Wi-Fi's last channel, called Channel 14, from being offered on products sold in the U.S. Here, users get just three usable channels.
Globalstar's license covers 2483.5MHz to 2495MHz, which is only half of the spectrum that's required to use Channel 14. The other half, just below Globalstar's, qualifies for use under the Wi-Fi standard but is effectively stranded, said Barbee Ponder, Globalstar's general counsel and vice president. The only major use of that band in the U.S. is Bluetooth, which has a shorter range and lower speeds than Wi-Fi, he said.
One chipset for the world
However, most Wi-Fi chipsets are already equipped to use Channel 14, because it costs less to make one chipset for all parts of the world. The difference between the chips in U.S. products and the ones that can use four channels typically is just firmware, according to Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias.
To prevent interference between Wi-Fi and Globalstar's satellite service, which would continue operating in the band, the FCC would have to approve the radio emissions of all types of devices that could use the extra channel. "We think that most modern Wi-Fi-capable devices will be able to meet that emissions profile," Globalstar's Ponder said.
Once someone could use Channel 14, the effect would be easy to understand. "You would just see that you would have better Wi-Fi access," Ponder said. But that doesn't mean Channel 14 would be available the same way other Wi-Fi spectrum is.
Because Wi-Fi typically runs on unlicensed spectrum, anyone can make and sell network gear and client devices that use the technology in the U.S. as long as they get their products approved by the FCC. All that gear then has to coexist, sharing the spectrum and accepting interference from other radios.