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Ofcom’s plans aren’t enough – service providers need to manage Wi-Fi congestion

Posted by Narayan Menon on 23 May 2016

How do you solve a traffic jam? If the traffic on a road is congested during rush hour every day, what measures should the authorities take to manage the road better?

A very common solution is to widen the road, and add extra lanes. If a single lane has a 100 cars packed into it, then two lanes should mean fifty cars per lane, freeing up the bottleneck.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. When, for example, the Katy Freeway in Houston was widened at a cost of $2.8bn, congestion actually got worse. Travel time has actually increased rather than gone down since the expansion.

This effect, where demand rises to meet supply, is often known as Parkinson’s Law or ‘induced demand’. It’s a principle that regulator Ofcom might want to take note of, in its bid to make more Wi-Fi spectrum available in the 5GHz band.

The 5GHz band is relatively quiet at the moment compared to the 2.4GHz band, simply because fewer devices use it. But as the 2.4GHz band gets increasingly crowded, there will be a temptation to use 5GHz instead.

5GHz does have some additional advantages – by using aggregated “pipes” of 20, 40, 80 or even 160 MHz chunks, this band provides wider bandwidth. But this means the spectrum is likely to be used in bigger chunks, and devices and access points will contend for these larger blocks of bandwidth.

Ofcom has noted that Wi-Fi will increasingly move to the 5GHz band and wants to “widen the road”. Outlined in these new plans, one block between 5725-5850MHz will be made available, with longer term plans for the 5350-5470MHz and 5150-5350MHz blocks. Rather than waiting for 5GHz to become congested, Ofcom is sensibly looking ahead to alleviate the inevitable congestion as 5GHz gains popularity: “People are placing greater demands on their broadband, so we need to ensure they aren’t let down by their wireless connection,”

Will the increased supply of Wi-Fi bandwidth mean an increase in the demand on this bandwidth? Undoubtedly – though there are a few key differences between highways and Wi-Fi.

The best way to tackle road congestion is to discourage car use, through ride-sharing, good public transport links, homeworking initiatives, and so on. This approach won’t work with Wi-Fi – data demands are only going to increase and people won’t take kindly to initiatives that ask them to use less Wi-Fi.

Instead, as well as widening the road, there needs to be better management of Wi-Fi. And this shouldn’t be led by the regulator, but by the providers who own the routers providing Wi-Fi access. As well as installing the access points, they need management and optimization schemes that ensure much more efficient usage all Wi-Fi bands. These radio resource management schemes will play a key role in mitigating congestion and interference, and in ensuring that the right network resources are allocated to the right devices at the right time.

Ofcom will continue to investigate lightly-used regulator-controlled bands where Wi-Fi can co-exist through spectrum sharing. Even with this necessary ‘road-widening’ congestion is inevitable, as more devices get connected and data demands increase. The question is if this congestion will be managed solely by finding new bandwidth, or whether better management can help prevent a sub-par experience for users.

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