Smartphones, tablets, wearables, and a mushrooming variety of mobile devices are now a fundamental part of life in America. According to surveys by Pew Research, 58 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, a number that leaps to 83 percent when looking at the 18–29 age demographic. But the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy is not much without Internet connectivity. And Internet connectivity isn’t nearly as fast or affordable without access to Wi-Fi.
Everyone now expects to get access to local Wi-Fi networks anywhere and everywhere, whether at home or at the office, at coffee shops or restaurants, or even public parks and airports. And if a Wi-Fi network is not available, consumers can now create their own. Mobile carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile offer mobile hotspot devices and personal hotspot applications that create a small Wi-Fi network anywhere you go. In fact, travelers commonly use Wi-Fi applications on their smartphones to connect their laptops when no free Wi-Fi is within range (for example, at a hotel or airport).
Most people don’t stop to think about how this open and shared access to Wi-Fi happens, but it operates on portions of the public airwaves that the government has purposely left “unlicensed.” In fact, the Federal Communications Commission has several pending proceedings to open up additional frequency bands as “public parks”–style common areas for inexpensive connectivity and innovation.
While the public expects Wi-Fi networks to run slower occasionally due to congestion, there is almost no surer way to anger the American public than to mess deliberately with the functionality of their smartphones.
That is why Marriott made headlines when they were caught doing just that. The FCC issued the company a $600,000 fine for blocking Wi-Fi at one of its hotel properties—the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Marriott blocked guests from using any smartphone or mobile hotspot device to access Wi-Fi. This effectively forced hotel guests and visitors to purchase Internet access on the hotel’s own (and relatively expensive) Wi-Fi Internet. However, instead of accepting the fine, changing its policy, and moving on, Marriott and the hotel industry association doubled down and filed a formal petition for rulemaking at the FCC claiming they had a “property right” to block Wi-Fi on their premises.
Although the FCC has yet to issue a formal ruling on the petition, the agency has indicated pretty clearly it will reject it. In untypically rapid fashion, shortly after receiving public comments, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a strong statement along with an Enforcement Bureau advisory bearing a rather blunt heading: “WARNING: Wi-Fi Blocking Is Prohibited.”
What’s notable about the debate spurred by Marriott’s petition is the near-total lack of debate among groups who usually oppose each other. The unlikely allies who rushed to protect the public’s right to Wi-Fi by filing comments strongly opposing the hotel industry petition included New America, small wireless providers and Internet companies, mobile carrier industry association, the cable industry association, the Consumer Electronics Association, and even Brown University. Universities like Brown—which stated that it manages its campus Wi-Fi network without interfering with visitor or other third-party Wi-Fi networks—have the biggest networks, but they aren’t asking to control the Wi-Fi on their property.
What’s equally notable was the outcome: Facing unprecedented consensus against them along with FCC opposition, Marriott recently withdrew its petition.
At a time when network neutrality makes headlines for its contentious, and increasingly partisan, debate, it is rare indeed to see such consensus on what the FCC should do. Everyone agrees it is important to protect unfettered public access to Wi-Fi and ensure it is never subject to willful interference, even within the four walls of a hotel complex, shopping mall, or other institutional venue.
The lack of debate around Marriott’s blocking behavior shows just how critical Wi-Fi has become. In the past, mobile providers like AT&T and Verizon have played down the importance of Wi-Fi and opposed efforts at the FCC to expand public access to unlicensed spectrum—bands of spectrum that are not licensed to individual firms but left open for shared public use.
So what changed? Since shortly after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, there has been a rapid uptake of smartphones and tablets—devices that are essentially mobile computers with full Internet capabilities. This caused an exponential growth in consumer demand for data on mobile devices, particularly as screen quality made uses like streaming video and video chat (think FaceTime) immensely popular. AT&T, which had initially offered the iPhone exclusively, suffered dropped calls and severe congestion since it’s network infrastructure—and limited licensed spectrum—was overwhelmed.
What was their solution? AT&T bought a Wi-Fi hotspot company and mobile devices evolved to make Wi-Fi connections very easy and often automatic. Wi-Fi is now critical to the network architecture of mobile providers, saving those companies an estimated more than $20 billion per year in spectrum and cell towers that would otherwise be needed to handle rapidly growing mobile device data traffic.
The public’s consumption of mobile data has been increasing at a rate of 60 percent per year, but mobile carrier capacity has been growing far more slowly. That data is increasingly being delivered not by the cellular 3G or 4G network of mobile providers but via Wi-Fi routers connected to fixed (wireline) broadband networks of cable, fiber, or DSL operators. Analysts predict that “Wi-Fi offloading,” as this trend toward redirecting mobile Internet traffic over Wi-Fi is known, will continue to increase over time. Indeed, consumers already use some mobile devices like tablets and e-readers almost exclusively on Wi-Fi networks.
However, as critical as Wi-Fi is today, it is bound to come under attack again. One emerging threat is a new proprietary technology that would allow licensed cellular providers to integrate unlicensed spectrum with their licensed operations, thereby expanding their capacity and reducing the need to purchase more expensive licensed spectrum at auction. The problem is that this technology—commonly known as LTE over unlicensed, or LTE-U—is likely to drown out Wi-Fi wherever the two share the same airwaves.
Any attempt to control (rather than share) unlicensed spectrum is antithetical to the way Wi-Fi was designed—to operate as a shared “commons” with polite “listen before talk” protocols that share available spectrum with other devices. T-Mobile has publicly stated it is testing LTE-U technology and may deploy it by the end of this year, but without any assurance thus far that it won’t (inadvertently or purposely) trample Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi has come a long way in just a few short years. What was previously considered “junk band” spectrum, only useful for garage doors openers and cordless phones, is now a central and critical piece to our communication networks. Technology policy stakeholders ranging from public interest groups to industry trade associations all agreed that the FCC must protect Wi-Fi. Hopefully the technology policy space will speak with similar uniformity if and when Wi-Fi comes under threat again.
Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.