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Why your Wi-Fi signal could suffer in 2016

Barry Collins
26 May 2015
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Future mobile phone equipment could interfere with Wi-Fi, Ofcom admits

Ofcom is to auction off more radio spectrum to Britain's mobile networks - but admits it could cause interference with existing Wi-Fi equipment.

Ofcom plans to sell two tranches of spectrum that are currently being used by the Ministry of Defence: the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands. The 2.3GHz band sits adjacent to the 2.4GHz band that is currently used by Wi-Fi routers, raising the possibility that new mobile equipment will interfere with Wi-Fi signals. 

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The telecoms regulator says it has conducted extensive tests and believes the risks of interference are slight. "For Wi-Fi, we have concluded that the likelihood of interference is very low and, even if it occurs, many users will not even notice," Ofcom's consultation paper states.

"The most important and effective mitigation is for the Wi-Fi router/device to use the alternative 5GHz Wi-Fi band," Ofcom's paper adds. "Almost all new Wi-Fi equipment has this capability. If the equipment is able to switch automatically then consumers will not even notice this has occurred. However, some older equipment which is able to operate at 5GHz may need to be switched manually."

Whilst it's certainly true that most modern routers offer both 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands, many users leave their routers running 2.4GHz only, because some older equipment isn't compatible with 5GHz. In many instances, 2.4GHz also offers a more reliable signal. Older routers may simply not have the option of switching to 5GHz, potentially forcing homes or businesses to upgrade their equipment in the event of interference. 

Ofcom is particularly concerned that femtocells - low-power base stations that are often supplied by mobile networks to boost mobile signal in a home or business - could harm Wi-Fi signals. The regulator says it will "encourage manufacturers to place stickers on 2.3GHz femtocell equipment to advise about suitable separation distances from Wi-Fi routers".

Bidding war?

Ofcom say it plans to auction the spectrum either late this year or in early 2016. However, it admits the shake-up that's currently occurring in the mobile industry could harm the price it fetches for the two bands. "Since Ofcom’s last consultation on the auction, BT has announced plans to buy EE, while Hutchison Whampoa – the owner of Three – has reached agreement to acquire O2 from its current owner Telefonica," the regulator notes. "If the latter merger goes ahead it would reduce the UK wholesale mobile market from four major operators to three."

Ofcom says it has no power to intervene in the proposed mergers, but will design the auction to ensure that one of the merging companies doesn't gain an unfair advantage. It will do this by holding back some spectrum in both the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands, which it can award at a later date, if and when the proposed mergers have been completed. BT recently stated that it didn't expect to get full approval for its takeover of EE from the competition authorities until next spring.