If service becomes slow when you’re trying to send a quick email on your smartphone, you might scroll through your network options and discover how many Wi-Fi networks there are. In fact, this plethora of options is itself the problem. These networks are in competition with one another, limiting the speed at which each can operate.
University of Chicago researchers have demonstrated how this increased network competition could negatively impact internet service for everyday users.
Competition between networks arises when they operate on shared spectrum bands, or frequency ranges for electromagnetic waves. In particular, Wi-Fi utilizes a spectrum that is “unlicensed,” meaning any device or network can utilize this spectrum as long as certain transmission rules mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are followed.
“The unlicensed spectrum is literally a free-for-all; anybody can use it, within the bounds set by FCC,” explained Monisha Ghosh, associate member in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chicago and research professor in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.
Cellular phone service mostly relies on an entirely separate band of spectra, which providers license from the FCC through spectrum auctions, though that has shifted with the growing demand for cellular data and limited bandwidths.
When a cellular provider, such as T-Mobile or AT&T, licenses a spectrum band from the FCC, they reserve its exclusive use. As a result, networks operating on licensed bands experience little interference. This allows providers to establish fast and reliable service, but it comes at a cost.