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FCC heralds a new era of 'super Wi-Fi'

John D. Sutter
"Super Wi-Fi," if adopted by a federal commission on Thursday, would make it easier to find wireless internet connections.
"Super Wi-Fi," if adopted by a federal commission on Thursday, would make it easier to find wireless internet connections.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The FCC wants to create "super Wi-Fi" networks in the U.S.
  • The networks would have stronger signals that cover greater areas
  • This could enable public Wi-Fi hotspots and other unforeseen applications
  • The commission votes on the issue next week.
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(CNN) -- It's more powerful than your current home network -- able to leap through tall buildings from a single port.

Look, up in the sky.

It's "SUPER Wi-Fi!"

At least that's what U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is calling a new class of bigger-faster-better internet connections, which could jump from fiction to reality after a commission vote on September 23.

Genachowski says "super Wi-Fi," which he also refers to as "Wi-Fi on steroids," may spark a technological revolution in the U.S.

"The spectrum allows signals to travel further, to go through walls, to [transfer] more information -- so it's very robust," he said in an interview with CNN.com. "Super Wi-Fi has extraordinary potential. What's as exciting is we have a new platform for innovation and we can't anticipate what will happen next."

The souped-up system could result in wireless internet connections coming to rural areas, fewer "dead zones" in Wi-Fi networks and the ability to transfer large files easily between machines and computers in hospitals, the FCC says.

Cities might also be able to use the larger Wi-Fi networks to offer up public wireless internet hot spots and perform such tasks as remotely monitoring infrastructure and water quality.

The changes would come about if the FCC votes to open up some of the "white space" between TV channels for use by anyone.

That spectrum allows for fast file transfers over areas that are several times as large as traditional Wi-Fi networks, which are used in many homes to connect computers, printers and mobiles phones to the internet.

If freeing up "vacant airwaves" is approved, it would be the first time since 1985 that the FCC has made new chunks of the wireless spectrum available for unlicensed use.

"This is going to be the first release of unlicensed spectrum in over 25 years," Genachowski said. "The last time we did this it led to Wi-Fi. It led to a multibillion-dollar industry and extraordinary benefits that we experience every day.

"We believe that history can repeat itself, and unlicensed spectrum will catalyze private investment -- it will create a new platform for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop new and exciting products for the public."

In addition to Wi-Fi, the 1985 spectrum change paved the way for wireless remote controls on televisions, baby monitors, wireless microphones and other gadgets.

Not everyone has been excited about the FCC's super Wi-Fi proposal, however.

Some broadcast groups as well as those who use the wireless spectrum to power microphones have criticized the new Wi-Fi plans.

The National Association of Broadcasters, however, said in an e-mail to CNN that the group "is working constructively with the FCC in hopes that the agency adopts final 'white spaces' rules that preserve the ability of local and network broadcasters to deliver interference-free television."

Jeff Evans, deputy director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute's telecommunications lab, said it appears that most technical issues with the wireless spectrum have been worked out.

The freeing up of the spectrum, however, will require concessions from theater operators and churches that use wireless microphones. They likely will have to switch wireless frequencies, he said.

Still, Evans said, the move to super Wi-Fi would be a good one.

"It should allow you to penetrate through just about any building -- and multiple walls," he said. "And instead of transmitting, say, a half-mile outdoors, you should be able to go two or three miles."

A common complaint about current Wi-Fi is that it doesn't work in all parts of a building and that the signals are sometimes so weak that they drop frequently.

On a technical level, the difference between super Wi-Fi and current Wi-Fi signals is that they travel at different frequencies, Evans said.

Old Wi-Fi is a 2.4-GHz signal, which is a shorter wavelength than super Wi-Fi, which will operate at several longer wavelengths in the TV spectrum.

Those frequencies gives the new Wi-Fi its espoused superpowers, he said.

"The wavelength is much longer and it's not attenuated nearly as much -- it's not absorbed as much by the atmosphere when you're transmitting, and it's also not absorbed by the buildings as much," Evans said.

Five or so super-Wi-Fi hotspots might be able to provide internet service to a small downtown area, he said. But it may be two or more years before such applications are available to consumers. It will take time for gadget and antenna makers to adjust to the new standards, he said.

Genachowski, the FCC chairman, said super Wi-Fi may be rolled out more heavily in some areas than others.

In dense cities where many groups are already using wireless signals, for example, super Wi-Fi may not be as prominent as in rural areas.

Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the FCC's plan could bring high-speed internet connections to new groups of people.

"It's taking an unused, or fallow, resource and making it available to help it address one of the significant challenges we as a society face," he said.

But, he added, the concept may not be economical. And, at least at first, it may not be helpful to people with mobile devices -- like smartphones and laptops -- who want to be able to get on the internet from anywhere.

"You're not going to have mobile phones and laptops that allow you to get in a taxi and go and be online as you're going to the airport and things like that," he said

The FCC is already testing the concept of super Wi-Fi in a few places.

The commission says the technology has been used to bring broadband internet to a school in rural Claudeville, Virginia, to add a public Wi-Fi network in Wilmington, North Carolina, and obtain data about the "smart grid" electricity infrastructure in Plumas County, California.

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