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Wireless spectrum crunch threatens Wi-Fi

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Sari Feldman, President of the American Library Association and Chris Szymanski, Director of Product Marketing and Government Affairs at Broadcom.

Today we celebrate World Wi-Fi Day, recognizing the transformational impact this affordable, high-speed technology has had on our lives by powering the computers, tablets and smartphones we use every day for things like social media, e-learning, streaming movies and music, online shopping and banking, digital health services and much, much more.

World Wi-Fi Day brings together tech companies, libraries, public interest groups and consumers to look at how we use Wi-Fi today and how we can make it better and more ubiquitous tomorrow. It also highlights that if we don’t join together to take action, there may not be much to celebrate in the future.

What’s the big crisis?  A growing spectrum crunch threatens our Wi-Fi.

You may not realize just how much you love Wi-Fi. According to recent studies, 81% of all smartphone traffic is carried over Wi-Fi. 80% of schools have Wi-Fi in most or all of their classrooms and libraries. 65% of hotel guests are online within seven minutes of check-in. The average American household has more than ten Wi-Fi enabled devices. Not surprisingly, the Huffington Post reports 75% of people say one week without Wi-Fi would leave them grumpier than one week without coffee!

Wi-Fi is no longer “nice to have”—it’s an essential utility to support education, employment and even public safety for individuals and communities. At the Young Public Library in Arizona, Forest Service fire watchers in the community of 700 bring laptops to the library to monitor and report incidents. At my local library, Bethany uses our Wi-Fi to grow her tutoring business and support one-on-one learning opportunities in the community. Five years ago, our peak Wi-Fi use was 220 people, now it’s 1,200, and we counted more than 800,000 Wi-Fi session in the last year. At the same time, Wi-Fi powers iPad labs for youth that enable on-the-fly programming and learning across most of the library branches in Cuyahoga County (OH).

An estimated 15 billion Wi-Fi enabled devices will have been shipped worldwide by the end of 2016. That’s billion with a “B”. With so much demand for the same shared band of unlicensed airwaves, Wi-Fi users face mounting congestion, slowing speeds and reducing reliability. Think of a highway permanently crippled by gridlock. If we want to ensure everyone can continue to enjoy great Internet connectivity at home, at work and on the go, we need policymakers to make unlicensed spectrum a key part of their broadband strategy, working to open up more unlicensed spectrum before it’s too late. This means taking a close look at opportunities for Wi-Fi devices to share spectrum with automotive applications in the 5.9GHz band. It also means ensuring that LTE based products operating in unlicensed frequencies do not harm existing Wi-Fi operations.

The stakes are high for a diverse set of stakeholders ranging from the American Library Association and wireless chip manufacturer Broadcom to the billions of people our products and services reach every year.

More than 98% of public libraries provide public Wi-Fi connectivity (up from 18% a decade ago), and a staggering 99.98% of all data crosses at least one Broadcom chip. In an era where critical products and services are increasingly accessed online, Wi-Fi fuels innovation and digital equity.

With Wi-Fi, our nation’s 16,536 public libraries are able to dramatically increase our capacity to connect people of all incomes and backgrounds to the Internet beyond our public desktop computers. Public libraries are the most common public Wi-Fi access point for African Americans and Latinos—with roughly one-third of these communities using public library Wi-Fi. As more people own personal Wi-Fi enabled devices, we may even reduce hardware costs normally associated with providing connectivity.

We all depend on making more unlicensed spectrum available to save technologies like Wi-Fi. What better time to get to work than World Wi-Fi Day?

The opinions presented in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Bloomberg Government or Bloomberg LP.