Super WiFi poised for growth

EVOLVING TECHNOLOGY: Super WiFi could provide high-speed Internet to sparsely populated rural areas which lack broadband. - ©William Perugini/

Move over WiFi, there’s a new wireless technology coming.

So-called Super Wi-Fi, which offers a bigger range than existing hotspots, is being deployed in the United States and generating interest in a number of countries, including Britain and Brazil.

Super WiFi is not really WiFi because it uses a different frequency and requires specially designed equipment, but it offers some of WiFi’s advantages, and more.

The name was coined by the US Federal Communications Commission in 2010, when it approved the deployment of unused broadcast television spectrum, or so-called “white spaces,” for wireless broadband.

The long range and use of the broadcast spectrum could allow wireless signals to travel farther than WiFi — in theory as far as 100 miles (160km) — although for practical reasons the range will probably be only a few miles.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation, said that is an advantage of using the broadcast spectrum.

“WiFi has been booming, but it has been limited by the frequencies it operates on, which go only a few hundred meters,” said Calabrese, who has been pressing for the use of “white spaces” since 2002.

In contrast, “television frequencies travel long distances at low power and penetrate through buildings, trees and bad weather,” Calabrese said.

This could provide high-speed Internet to sparsely populated rural areas which lack broadband. It could also allow consumers to create their own hotspots, which could be used on devices while away from their homes.

The first deployment of Super WiFi came last year by Rice University in Houston, Texas, followed by another earlier this year in Wilmington, North Carolina.

A coalition of organisations has announced plans to deploy Super WiFi to college campuses in rural areas starting early next year in a project called AIR.U, backed by Google and Microsoft.

Super WiFi would be on “unlicensed” spectrum, like WiFi, so companies would not bid on exclusive spectrum rights. This can lower costs. And there is often excess capacity, especially in rural areas, where fewer TV stations operate.

Mobile phone companies could use Super WiFi, as they do now with WiFi, to relieve some of the “spectrum crunch” from the explosion of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

But in order for Super WiFi to gain traction, manufacturers of PCs and other devices would have to make chipsets that could operate on both systems.

Dan Lubar of the WhiteSpace Alliance, an association dedicated to new wireless technology, said he sees Super WiFi gaining momentum in the US and other countries with unused broadcast spectrum.

“Everybody understands the value of this spectrum,” he said. “It is the biggest swath of spectrum and has the most favourable characteristics.”

Chipmaker Texas Instruments recently joined the alliance, suggesting that equipment makers are ready to start making Super WiFi equipment.

“It’s definitely going to be here in visible ways by the middle of next year,” Lubar said.

Calabrese said that because of a lack of compatible equipment, most of the early Super WiFi deployments are being back converted to regular WiFi signals. At some point soon, he said, people may start using air cards or dongles to capture Super WiFi.

Gerry Purdy, an analyst and consultant with MobileTrax LLC, was more cautious about prospects for Super WiFi, saying it may take several years to gain traction.

“It’s a good utilisation of spectrum, but I’m more conservative than some people,” he said.

“Building chipsets takes times, software standards take time; I don’t think people should have false expectations.”

The most vocal criticism comes from the WiFi Alliance, which has a trademark on the name WiFi and fears consumers will be confused by incompatible technical norms.

The group said it supports the use of unlicensed spectrum for broadband but that Super WiFi “does not inter-operate with the billions of WiFi devices in use today” and does not “deliver the same user experience as is available in WiFi hotspots and home networks.”

Although the name is the most controversial part of Super WiFi, that did not come from the backers of the technology, but from the FCC and chairman Julius Genachowski.

“I wish we had thought of that. We had been calling it WiFi on steroids,” said Calabrese. — AFP/Relaxnews 2012

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