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Monday, June 03, 2013

Is Israel about to ban carrier WiFi offload?

I didn't see this coming at all - according to this article on Azi Ronen's blog, the Israeli government wants to ban carrier WiFi in public places, and has been consulting on this for some time, and will publish an official statement this week. I have to admit it's the first I've heard of it.

"The reason for banning the use of Wi-Fi is spectrum shortage, and letting CSPs to use these frequencies will limit the public access to the internet. Nevertheless, municipalities and other public organizations will be allowed to offer free public Wi-Fi services"

The article Azi links to (put through Google Translate) suggests that Israel has allocated less spectrum to WiFi than most of the rest of the world and as a result there is a lot more contention for it. The two tables and notes on this Wikipedia page shows that the country does indeed block certain channels in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The article also hints that the Ministry would like to clear other chunks of spectrum to use for WiFi in future.

Having been to Tel Aviv recently, it's worth commenting that there is free WiFi pretty much everywhere. Any restaurant or bar, as well as the airport, a lot of shopping malls and other public places, had free WiFi - either totally open or with a code provided for those who ask.

(This isn't the first instance of WiFi regulatory weirdness in Israel - 4 years ago it stopped iPads being brought into the country temporarily because of fears over congestion from too-powerful radios, or perhaps inability to lock-out certain channels)

While this might be a country-specific isolated law, it raises an interesting set of general issues and points.

Firstly, it could be argued that Carrier WiFi offload is a less-valuable use of unlicenced spectrum than venue/app-sponsored free WiFi, because it doesn't add to the overall amount of (free) Internet Access available to citizens in public places. Instead, it just substitutes one form (3G/4G) for another (WiFi), with the benefit of "offload" accruing to the operator, rather than end-users or (implicitly) the economy. Yes, offload WiFi is often "free" or excluded from mobile broadband quotas to subscribers, but it is typically locked-out or fee-based for non-subscribers.

Secondly it points out that WiFi used for (free) public Internet access is rapidly becoming a public amenity and that governments are starting to protect it. As well as various municipal WiFi projects provided by authorities themselves, we also have other legal rules on commercial provision of WiFi - for example Kuala Lumpur mandates that restaurants offer free WiFi. I also had a chat with a telecoms regulator a couple of years ago that mused that if WiFi use became sufficiently important and valuable, it might need laws to protect it - for example, against other uses of 2.4GHz such as leaky microwave ovens or garage door-openers. Increasing usage and popularity of WiFi points to the fact that a lot of smartphone/tablet use is "nomadic" rather than properly moving-about mobile - and therefore not really cellular operators' supposed target market anyway. Is "non-mobile" WiFi really a service? Or is it an amenity like air-conditioning and public bathrooms, or even electrical sockets in cafes?

Thirdly, it points to a dilemma for telcos - if they start using WiFi and unlicenced spectrum aggressively, it becomes very hard - hypocritical even - for them to lobby against more spectrum being made licence-exempt in future. Obviously they would prefer to have licenced bands allocated to individual operators, but just without expensive auction fees.

Fourth, this type of law is going to be quite hard to frame. Does it just ban carrier WiFi offload (ie actual substitution of 3G/4G traffic for WiFi) or does it also apply to all the other operator-led WiFi business models and purposes? My view has long been that "offload" is probably only the 3rd or 4th most important thing that telcos can do with WiFi anyway - more interesting models are open-to-all "onload", managed WiFi for venues, wholesale WiFi for other service providers, "shared WiFi" models like FON, location analytics and so on. WhileWiFi offload itself doesn't improve public amenity of Internet access, some of the others generally go.

Fifthly, there's always the outside chance of a "conspiracy theory" here - or at least some well-crafted game theory. If extra carrier WiFi in public places does congest unlicenced bands and interfere with other providers such as free hotspots in cafes, then implicitly it raises the utility and value of managed/licenced spectrum and mobile broadband plans. It would also make things like small cells much more attractive to end-users and venue owners. But surely nobody in the mobile industry would be that Machiavellian or cynical (or that smart) to do such a thing?

Lastly, this throws into question the legality/acceptability of various "seamless" WiFi log-on technologies like ANDSF and Hotspot 2.0. As I wrote last week, I already think that these are problematic from an end-user point of view, but this adds a whole other angle.

Overall, I'm a bit wary of this proposed legislation. While I certainly think that "seamless offload" and WiFi-integrated HetNets are problematic for all sorts of reasons, I'm definitely a supporter of what I'd call "WiFi Neutrality" - that users should be able to connect to whichever wireless ISP they wish and not be forced/blocked by external forces. I had telcos restricting "private" WiFi in mind, but this could equally apply to governments as well. (Employers and parents enforcing restrictions are OK for obvious reasons). I regularly use various forms of carrier WiFi - although in the UK this is usually provided by fixed rather than mobile operators. What would happen with hybrid fixed/cellular telcos, eg BT now has LTE spectrum - would Openzone be banned under the Israeli proposals, or just any use of it for offload?

This is a complex area and while (as far as I can tell from a brief article) the Israeli government's intentions are sound, there is a lot of complexity in the details.


Anonymous said...

...and sixthly, never in the history of a single small news article have so many different issues been raised

Dean Bubley said...

Think yourself lucky it wasn't about RCS/Joyn. Usually takes me at least 17 reasons why it's a stupid idea before I run out of steam on that....