Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

'Super Wi-Fi' Blankets First County in U.S.

A campaign to free up spectrum hoarded by old media bears fruit.

  • January 26, 2012

New Hanover County, North Carolina, just rolled out Super Wi-Fi, which is its actual name, not just a patronizing euphemism I’m deploying because I think you can’t handle “a new Wi-Fi standard operating in the ‘white spaces’ between 50-700Mhz, where previously only television stations were allowed to transmit.”

Aside: here’s a very accessible primer on what Super Wi-Fi is and why you should care about it.

This could mean super fast wireless connections for the county’s residents, and also the potential to connect to Wi-Fi towers that are miles distant—something that is impossible with conventional Wi-Fi, mostly because the power of normal Wi-Fi transmitters are limited by the FCC.

From the press release:

Wilmington was the first city in 2008 to make the successful transition from Analog to Digital Television. As a result of this transition, the city had early access to the broadcast spectrum “white spaces” that emerged from the shift. These white spaces are ideal for Super Wi-Fi deployment since their physical properties allow for stronger signals that provide better penetration and allow Wi-Fi to travel further distances than more common, traditional Wi-Fi networks. A subsequent trial of the Super Wi-Fi network took place in 2011.

There’s a bunch more in the release about how Super Wi-Fi is the greatest thing since penicillin, but I have to temper the hype a bit by referring to an earlier piece in Tech Review by Scott Woolley that notes that Super Wi-Fi can’t really live up to its full potential, at least as a medium for long distance connectivity.

Under government rules designed to protect local TV stations from harmful interference, high-power Super Wi-Fi signals (up to four watts), which can travel for miles, must give TV channels a wide berth. Low-power Super Wi-Fi signals (less than 40 milliwatts) face fewer restrictions.

The result is that while there are 48 channels potentially available for long-range Super Wi-Fi, zero or one channel will be available for long-range use in the places most Americans live—so Super Wi-Fi networks significantly bigger than today’s home Wi-Fi networks won’t be practical.

So it turns out that most of the spectrum that the FCC was trying to free up for Super Wi-Fi remains unavailable. That hasn’t stopped companies like Microsoft from creating WiFi hardware that could take advantage of a theoretically more-liberal policy on the part of the FCC, so hopefully this is one case in which the technology will push lawmakers to act.

For more on this rollout, check out New Hanover County, N.C., First in Nation to Deploy ‘Super Wi-Fi’ Network.

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