Industry backs Ofcom call for Wi-Fi boost

Ofcom's proposal to raise Wi-Fi power limits has met with approval from a major hotzone operator, who says it could help the business case for rural broadband

Wireless broadband provider The Cloud has backed a proposal from Ofcom to allow higher-powered Wi-Fi transmitters in the UK.

Niall Murphy, co-founder of The Cloud, told ZDNet UK that the regulator's plan means rural areas would have a better chance of getting coverage from wireless access providers.

"It means that the economics of deploying in lower density areas are improved, because with certain outdoor coverage scenarios it increases the range per kit ratio," Murphy said on Friday.

"Right now it would be tough for us to make a business case to deploy outdoor coverage in a rural village because there aren't enough people per square metre to justify the capital investment."

The Cloud is currently rolling out "hotzones" (large-scale Wi-Fi hotspots) across metropolitan areas such as Manchester and the City of London.

Ofcom's consultation, which was launched earlier this month, is driven by two needs, according to a spokesperson for Ofcom: to "improve spectrum efficiency by widening the range of potential devices in the spectrum" and rural broadband availability.

It is estimated that between two and three percent of the UK population — mostly rural — has no access to broadband. Again, this has largely been largely down to the prohibitive cost of upgrading telephone exchanges in areas with very low population density.

There are two bands of frequency involved in the proposal: 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) uses most of the 5.8GHz band, although Ofcom says it has agreed to allow an increase in power to 4 watts. However, such a small rise is unlikely to make a big difference to the business case for rural Wi-Fi.

2.4GHz, on the other hand, is the frequency used by most existing Wi-Fi equipment, although again the MoD uses the bottom two-thirds of the band, so any improvement in range would have to take place in the upper third only. The proposal is calling for an increase there to 10W.

It is unlikely that Ofcom's call for higher-powered 2.4GHz Wi-Fi will be rejected following the consultation, but fears that too many signals operating over long distances could create excessive interference have led to three options for its implementation.

The first option would see no registration requirements and no geographical restrictions. The second would involve a geographical limitation of higher-powered Wi-Fi to "hamlets, villages and rural towns", made possible by devices being "location-aware" so they only turn up the power in appropriate areas.

The third option is similar to the second, except the geographical limitations would come from a "mandatory registration scheme" and users working collaboratively to avoid excessive cross-over.

Some existing Wi-Fi transmitters will be able to increase their range through a software upgrade, but many will need to be replaced. According to Ofcom, though, kit from the US — which already allows higher Wi-Fi power than the UK — will typically be incompatible here.

The consultation is due to close on 20 September, although Ofcom's spokesperson told ZDNet UK it was "too early to say" when the decision will be implemented.