How Amazon (and you) might use its private Wi-Fi network

A report that Amazon has tested a wireless network actually sheds new light on plans by satellite communications company Globalstar to extend the Wi-Fi spectrum.

The extension, if approved by the FCC, would create a new, uncluttered, high-performance Wi-Fi channel in upper reaches of the 2.4-GHz band, a channel Globalstar apparently intends as the basis of a managed service with cellular-like quality and roaming.

Tests reported

Amazon's wireless testing was revealed last week in a Bloomberg news story, "Amazon Is Said to Have Tested a Wireless Network," by Olga Kharif and Danielle Kucera. The tests were run near Amazon's Lab126 research facilities in Cupertino, California, according to Bloomberg's sources. The lab designs Amazon's Kindle devices.

"The trial underlines how Amazon, the world's largest e-commerce company, is moving beyond being a Web destination and hardware maker and digging deeper into the underlying technology for how people connect to the Internet," according to the Bloomberg story. "That would let Amazon create a more comprehensive user experience, encompassing how consumers get online, what device they use to connect to the Web and what they do on the Internet."

But the tests suggest that Amazon doesn't intend or even want to be a traditional wireless network provider. Instead, the online retail giant seems to be exploring the potential of a branded, managed Wi-Fi service that mirrors the features of cellular service: seamless roaming, minimal interference, improved security, and consistent high performance.

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The Bloomberg report notes that the test network used spectrum controlled by satellite communications company Globalstar, based in Milpitas, California. In November 2012, the company petitioned the FCC to allow it to use part of its satellite spectrum to offer terrestrial data services, an offering it dubbed Terrestrial Low Power Service.

TLPS adds a big chunk of new capacity: 22 MHz to the currently available 72 MHz of 2.4 GHz spectrum, according to Jarvinian Wireless Innovation Fund, a Cambridge, Mass., research and investment firm focused on spectrum issues. Jarvinian claims credit for the TLPS idea and the engineering work behind it, and has been working closely with Globalstar.TLPS would essentially add a fourth non-overlapping channel, dubbed Channel 14, to the upper reaches of the 2.4 GHz band used for unlicensed Wi-Fi transmissions. The channel actually would combine Globalstar's adjacent licensed spectrum with a small amount of unlicensed spectrum.

But because this fourth channel is actually licensed to Globalstar, the company plans to use it in something like a wholesale, managed wireless service that would offer greater range and performance than conventional public Wi-Fi hotspots, and be available to end users through carriers or through brands, such as Amazon, operating as virtual network operators.

Eyeing new spectrum

The Bloomberg story does take note of these plans. "Globalstar is seeking regulatory approval to convert about 80 percent of its spectrum to terrestrial use....Globalstar met with FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn in June, and a decision on whether the company can convert the spectrum could come within months."

If given a green light, "Globalstar is considering leasing its spectrum, sharing service revenues with partners, and other business models, one of the people said. With wireless spectrum scarce, Globalstar's converted spectrum could be of interest to carriers and cable companies, seeking to offload ballooning mobile traffic, as well as to technology companies."

Earlier this year, then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski repeated his pledge to continue expanding spectrum in both licensed and unlicensed bands.

In June, Wi-Fi vendor Ruckus Wireless, in Mountain View, California, announced it had completed a round of tests with Globalstar. The trial combined unlicensed spectrum from the upper edge of the 2.4 GHz Industrial Scientific Medical (ISM) band and Globalstar's licensed Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) spectrum. Ruckus used its Smart Wi-Fi brand access points and controllers, targeted at carrier-based Wi-Fi services, and a selection of existing smartphones with built-in Wi-Fi radios that had been given and over-the-air firmware update to run on the new channel.

Speed, capacity increased

According to Ruckus, the test showed that the new spectrum could achieve up to five times the range and four times the capacity "over traditional Wi-Fi." Unfortunately, the Ruckus statement was not more specific about the meaning of "traditional Wi-Fi," which could refer to 802.11n or even 802.11g, or about "capacity." Capacity refers to the network's ability to handle larger numbers of users and greater amounts of traffic. [One discussion of Wi-Fi capacity is found in "Aerohive Design & Configuration Guide: High-density Wi-Fi," by Andrew von Nagy, an Aerohive employee.] The increased range is important especially if higher data rates are sustained over those longer distances.

In a June interview posted at EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet.com, Jarvinian Managing Director John Dooley was quoted as saying "Even in an indoor environment made difficult or unusable by spectral congestion, usable connections [in the Ruckus-Globalstar tests] were established at 3-5 times the distance of public WiFi." The tests also showed more uniform high speeds across longer ranges, according to that post.

The Ruckus statement also said the Globalstar test network did not interfere with nearby conventional Wi-Fi networks. That lack of interference is important. In filing its comments on Globalstar's FCC petition, the Consumer Electronics Association argued that "Globalstar's....proposal presents significant risk to unlicensed operations in the 2.4 GHz band and potentially threatens the economic value, consumer benefit, growth, and potential for innovation of those unlicensed operations." Other industry groups have also raised concerns. [See "Globalstar's plan for an extra Wi-Fi band draws fire."] 

But Amazon apparently sees potential in offering its customers, ever more untethered with smartphones and tablets, a premium Wi-Fi experience that's superior to what public Wi-Fi today can offer.

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