Europe could follow U.S. in freeing up more 5GHz spectrum for future Wi-Fi needs

More radio spectrum should be freed up to make sure Europeans’ Wi-Fi cravings don’t outstrip supply, a European Commission-commissioned study published on Thursday has suggested. And, as in the U.S., the idea here is to target spectrum in the 5GHz band.

Why do we need more Wi-Fi spectrum? Because of mobile devices. Smartphones and tablets continue to proliferate, and people tend to use Wi-Fi where they can, in order to save on 3G and 4G costs. Even carriers are keen on using Wi-Fi for so-called “offloading”, in order to ease the strain on their cellular networks.

Future demand

According to the Commission, 71 percent of wireless data traffic flowing to and from mobile devices in the EU last year flowed over Wi-Fi, and that number is expected to hit 78 percent by 2016. Considering that the total traffic will itself increase a great deal over that time, that’s a lot of Wi-Fi usage we’re talking about.

If you’ve got a device that uses the 802.11n or 802.11ac Wi-Fi standards, chances are it can use 5GHz instead of the 2.4GHz band traditionally used for Wi-Fi. At the moment, 5GHz Wi-Fi is still pretty sparsely used outside of public Wi-Fi networks, but the authors of the study (J. Scott Marcus of WIK-Consult and John Burns of Aegis Systems) noted that the 5GHz band could get crowded in the long term “if rates of traffic growth persist as we project”.

The solution, the authors claimed, would be to free up the bits of the 5GHz band that aren’t already available in Europe. In line with the FCC plans over in the U.S., they recommended freeing up the 5350-5470MHz and 5850-5925MHz bands – they also pointed to the 5725-5850MHz band, which is already used in the U.S. but not in Europe.

From the report:

“If these measures were all successfully undertaken, Wi-Fi devices would have access to a contiguous band from 5150 MHz all the way up to 5925 MHz. This would be an increase in total bandwidth of 320 MHz, or 70%; however the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi deployment using channel widths of 40 MHz or more would increase by 100% or more, due to the elimination of the current fragmentation within the 5 GHz band.

“This would not only alleviate potential congestion in the Wi-Fi bands, but would also enable Wi-Fi to operate at substantially higher speeds than those that are achievable today.”

Incidentally, the authors also noted that the 5875-5925MHz band is used for “intelligent transport systems” – something about which car-makers have expressed fears to the FCC — but argued that “there is currently little use made of this spectrum and the technologies deployed are likely to be compatible with Wi-Fi deployment provided that suitable sharing mechanisms such as dynamic frequency selection (DFS) are put in place.”

September package

In total, the authors made three recommendations that the Commission seems keen to carry forward: to free up that 5GHz spectrum; to look into future licensing options for the 3.5GHz band; and to make it less of a pain for carriers to set up Wi-Fi offload services in public locations.

Digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes praised the report, while also giving a shout out to Wi-Fi-sharing community Fon:

“Wi-Fi is a huge success. It’s a win for everybody involved. I will make sure the European Commission helps to spread use of Wi-Fi through extra spectrum and lighter regulation… Systems where you share your Wi-Fi network with others are a great example of how we can crowd-source a better internet for everyone.”

Kroes’s team tells me the recommendations may find their way into the “Telecoms Single Market” package in September.