Spectrum Crunch got you scared? Wi-Fi to the spectrum rescue!

Robert Moses, a man who never learned how to drive, ironically was the greatest road builder in history. From the early 1930s to 1968, Moses built nearly every major highway in and around New York City and Long Island, and all the bridges and tunnels attached thereto (and lots of other stuff).

Moses also may have invented the traffic jam. To everyone's shock, a Moses highway designed to alleviate traffic would suddenly fill with it, forcing him to build more highways, which in turn got filled with traffic, forcing him to build more highways, which then got filled with more traffic…

I bring up Mr. Moses and his crowded highway exploits because of a recent post week on CNN Money, "Sorry, America: Your Wireless Airways Are Full." Welcome to the spectrum crunch reporting party, mainstream media.

It seems Moses' self-perpetuating highway expansion cycle is repeating itself on our cellular network highways. Each time our smartphones and tablets become more powerful, we pull more content through the 3G and 4G spectrum, encouraging smartphone makers to make more powerful smartphones, encouraging us we pull more content through the 3G and 4G spectrum…

Cellular spectrum is finite. We're filling it like a closet with junk — or a new road everyone wants to drive on. But a solution is coming: Wi-Fi to the rescue!

It's funny how history repeats itself.

Back in the day, car phones were serviced by a single antenna delivering signal over an entire metropolitan area. Cellular technology developed over a 25-year period, from 1947 to 1972, and carved these single antenna metro areas into smaller cells, each with its own smaller antenna and frequencies. At the time, the most optimistic forecast for portable phone use was 200,000 people in a large city — and even the forecasters thought that projection was laughably high.

But now our cells are being overwhelmed. The solution is to create a network of even smaller cells — or, better yet, Wi-Fi hotspots.

But Wi-Fi hotspots aren't like cellular cells. It's not like your phone automatically connects to any Wi-Fi network it detects in the wild for data connectivity.

Not yet, anyway.

Automatic Connection

Starting this fall, you will see references to something called Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint, a new Wi-Fi hotspot standard often referred to as "Hotspot 2.0." Passpoint is currently being finalized by the Wi-Fi Alliance, with business partnerships being organized by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, which currently manages cellular roaming agreements.

Right now, you have to sort through a list of available Wi-Fi hotspots, figure out which ones are safe and secure, enter a password (if you know it), or deal with the digital rigmarole of interstitial Web pages to input a credit card number.

Passpoint eliminates all of this. Passpoint will completely automate Wi-Fi connectivity, making the process as invisible and ubiquitous as cellular roaming.

Your phone will automatically detect and connect to the most powerful available Wi-Fi network for your data connectivity needs, leaving the 3G and 4G networks free to deal with voice duties.

Of course you'll pay for this privilege, but you won't get a separate bill. You'll sign up for some sort of Wi-Fi package (no one is quite sure how the plans will work) through whomever you currently pay for cell or even cable TV service.

How It Works

Powering Passpoint are two new protocols, 802.11u and 802.11i.

802.11u is a supplement to the familiar 802.11b, g and n Wi-Fi standards, and enables a Wi-Fi device to discover Passpoint networks. 802.11u acts like a social director to ensure you get connected to only the most robust, fastest and most secure Wi-Fi networks.

802.11i authenticates a network's SSID (Service Set IDentifier), a network's internal 32-character password. This current lack of automatic authentication is why you get a list of dozens of potential Wi-Fi networks you can't connect to or why your email often doesn't work when you do finally connect.

I'm told these two protocols already lie dormant in current smartphones, waiting to be awakened by an operating system and/or firmware update.

Automatically switching from cellular to Passpoint Wi-Fi for data connectivity will not only ease network congestion, but improve voice quality of service — you won't necessarily get better sound, but your calls will maintain more consistent connections with fewer dropped calls now that data and voice aren't elbowing each other for prominence.

You'll also get more life from your battery. Instead of constantly pinging multiple Wi-Fi hotspots, the new protocols will zero in on just Passpoint complaint hotspots.

Passpoint Consquences

Relying more on Wi-Fi than 3G and 4G will not only alleviate the spectrum crunch, but we'll all be happier data downloaders. At 300 Mbps — or up to 1 Gbps on coming 802.11ac gigabit Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi could deliver data 300 to a thousand times faster than comparatively sluggish 5-12 Mbps 4G LTE networks.

And as soon as the Passpoint network and users reach a critical mass, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon may return to unlimited data minutes instead of their current capped spectrum rationing plans.

Passpoint also could spawn heavier use of VoIP calling from smartphones, which could cut the number of voice minutes you have to subscribe to and pay for.

However, the current Passpoint standard doesn't allow for handing voice calls off when you move from one Passpoint hotspot to another — and may never. After all, if you could use Wi-Fi to make all your smartphone calls, why would we need cellular spectrum at all?

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