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Brussels, 14 July 2005

Wireless Access Systems (WAS) including Radio Local Area Networks (RLANs): Frequently Asked Questions

What are these technologies used for?

Today, radio local area networks (RLANs, also known as Wi-Fi) can be used in so-called “hotspots” that can be found at airports, hotels, coffee shops, etc. They allow users to connect their laptop to the Internet and to make phone calls using “Voice over IP” (see MEMO/05/46). There is increasing evidence that RLAN networks can provide effective Internet services, especially as a complement to cellular and residential broadband services, or across municipal or Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) networks.

RLANs are part of a wider category called Wireless Access Systems that give their users access to broadband communications in a “nomadic” environment, meaning the user can take his laptop to access these services at any location within the range of a “hotspot”.

Can they do long-distance phone calls?

The consumer using RLAN equipment outside his home country may also benefit from use of “Voice over IP” in a hotspot anywhere around the world. This will allow him to bypass the currently high roaming charges imposed by mobile operators. In other words, long distance calls – voice and video – for a very competitive price are just a hotspot away.

What are the market prospects for this technology?

Although mainly found in laptops today, these technologies will also be used in mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other devices in the future. According to market studies there are currently more than 5 million RLAN users worldwide, however, it is estimated that this number could jump to 500 million or more by 2008. Growth in the number of hotspots (currently estimated at around 70.000 worldwide) and customer revenue (currently around € 350 million in Europe, Middle East and Africa) over the last years add to the take-up potential. In Europe partnerships between cellular operators and RLAN public access providers are developing, thus giving further positive signs. Last but not least, market analysts predict a global market for RLAN semiconductors of around € 600 million by 2009.

RLAN equipment on the market today uses frequencies at 2.4 GHz. This is a band originally used for non-communication applications, such as microwave ovens. With the increase in the use of Wi-Fi there is the potential for poor conditions of use due to the saturation of the airwaves and interference between different devices, leading to limitations on the further development of innovative services.

Why a Commission Decision on this subject?

Taking into account the potential congestion in the existing 2.4 GHz frequency band, it is important for industry to be given the legal certainty that a substantial amount of spectrum will be made available for WAS/RLANs throughout the European Union in a harmonised way. The new Commission Decision will ensure that sufficient spectrum is soon made available in all Member States in the 5 GHz range (5150-5350 MHz and 5470-5725 MHz) to accommodate new equipment, thus giving impetus to new innovative services and access to broadband. As well as encouraging the uptake of innovative services, the main objective of this action is to ensure the creation of a single market for devices using Wi-Fi, such as laptops.

The RLAN systems using the new bands will be faster than existing Wi-Fi (typically 54 Mbit/s instead of 11 Mbit/s). Rather than being a band open to any application, like 2.4 GHz, the 5 GHz frequency bands are to be shared by RLAN with a limited number of other radio spectrum users, namely military and satellite services. This gives RLAN a better operating environment, but required some coordinated technical coexistence criteria, which were agreed at the World Radiocommunications Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2003 (WRC-03).

Given the great difference in use and operating requirements between, for instance, a military radar and a Wi-Fi hotspot, their coexistence in the 5 GHz bands has required the development of state-of-the-art interference mitigation techniques, such as Transmitter Power Control (TPC) and Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS). These allow for a more efficient use of spectrum by making coexistence between these very different services possible. The Commission Decision gives a legal basis for the level of protection that all the different services operating in the 5 GHz range can expect within the EU.

How can this Decision facilitate innovation and the rapid spread of broadband services?

You do not require a licence to gain access to the frequencies made available in the 5 GHz range. In other words anyone, whether for private or public purposes, can install and use equipment overnight as long as this equipment fulfils the protection criteria laid down by Member States following this Decision. Given such easy access conditions, this can be expected to lead to a large number of trials and tests.

Today’s Commission Decision also gives a large amount of flexibility with respect to what type of service or network topology the technology is used for. Manufacturers are already working on new innovative applications, such as the spreading of self-building networks. So-called “mesh networks” are new ways of connecting users to broadband and extending the range, in some cases without additional network costs. In metropolitan areas, in particular, these networks may trigger substantial changes compared to today’s communications landscape.

As other spectrum users must be protected, there are, however, limits to the range that one can achieve with WAS/RLAN equipment that uses the 5 GHz frequency bands. Consequently, this will limit to some extent the prospects of bringing broadband into rural areas where longer distances need to be bridged for access. This is where a technology like WiMAX could come into play. WIMAX is a technology that has substantially more range (typically in the order of several kilometres), but also uses a higher power than Wi-Fi (in other frequency bands). Initially, it will provide wireless internet access in fixed and nomadic environments, however, by 2008 manufacturers will also have equipment intended for use in a mobile environment. It should be noted that when WIMAX equipment is used in the bands identified by this Commission Decision the relevant power limits for WAS/RLAN must be respected.

What are the potential risks?

The fact that a licence is not required for using WAS/RLAN in the 5 GHz band means that it is left up to technology to sort out any cases of interference or service degradation. There is a trade-off between quality and reliability on the one hand and low cost, easy access on the other hand. It is difficult to say where exactly this trade-off lies, today. It will be influenced by the motivations and needs of the consumer as well as by the progress that can be made in technology to cope with interference and degradation of service.

As with the use of any radio device, there is also a risk of interference with other radio services. However, the precautions taken should minimise this risk, and operating conditions will be kept under review. A greater danger would have been NOT to regulate in this area at EU level. The portability of devices incorporating RLAN means that national rules could not in any case have been enforced across borders. Furthermore, the fragmented nature of the European market would have encouraged the “grey” import and illegal use of cheaper equipment from outside Europe, for instance sourced on the internet.

Can these devices be used outside of Europe?

The 5 GHz range has been harmonised for the use by WAS/RLAN through agreements reached at the global level during the World Radiocommunications Conference during 2003. Consequently, it can be expected that this frequency band and the relevant equipment using it, will become available around the world, thus generating economies of scale for the industry as well as ubiquitous services and choice for the consumer.

Other major markets, such as Japan and the US, are implementing similar rules for the 5 GHz bands based on- the outcome of the World Radiocommunications Conference 2003. A large market in the EU will encourage other countries to align themselves to the same specifications.

What about new developments?

Further technological developments may lead to new possibilities in terms of protection and service capabilities (including range). After some time, additional experience in deployment may also bring new information. The Commission encourages further studies and testing with a view to optimising sharing scenarios and performance. The European Commission will propose a revision of this Decision should new developments on the market make this necessary.

When will these “new generation” Wi-Fi products be in the shops?

Manufacturers have already started to ship equipment which can utilise at least parts of the 5 GHz band, as well as the already existing 2.4 GHz band (dual band equipment). This equipment can already today be purchased via the Internet.  However, broad take-up and substantial sales volumes are not expected for another year, according to industry sources. Demand will initially come from the business sector since consumers are likely to prefer cheaper equipment using the 2.4 GHz band. According to market analysts the prices of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz chipsets should be similar by 2008.

What is the Wi-Fi situation in the Member States?

Use of Wi-Fi equipment is possible in all Member States, because the 2.4 GHz band is available throughout Europe. In several European countries (see Table 1) public service offerings are available. Private use is also widespread allowing the creation of corporate and peer-to-peer networks.

Table 1: Examples of Public Wi-Fi offerings in Europe

Public operator
Public operator
The Netherlands
The UK

Availability of the 5 GHz band was not harmonised when the Commission made a first assessment of the issue in 2003. For example, at that time there was only partial or no availability of the 5GHz bands in Austria, France, Greece and Spain. In May 2005 Austria made the entire 5 GHz band available in line with the Commission Decision.

Denmark and Lithuania have already implemented rules, but without limitations to indoor use of the sub-band 5150-5350 MHz. Technical studies have shown that outdoor use of this sub-band would have negative effects on the Earth Exploration Satellite Service. Thus there are justified reasons for avoiding interference and protecting services conducive to Community policies and the Commission has the remit to ensure the coordination of policy approaches and efficient use of spectrum through the Radio Spectrum Decision (676/2002/EC). The Commission acknowledges that the strict enforcement of indoor use may not be practicable in all cases, but this restriction, as contained in the Commission Decision on RLANs, will ensure, for example, that outdoor access points for public mesh networks can be prohibited in this particular sub-band.

Hungary has expressed concerns about the protection of meteorological radars used for detecting rain, which also operate in a small sub-band in the 5 GHz range. The Commission Decision has the objective of protecting all radar applications in the 5 GHz band and it encourages further tests and studies with a view to optimising sharing scenarios and performance. The Hungarian concern is currently being addressed in the standardisation process at technical level. The close link of the Commission Decision to the R&TTE Directive (1999/5/EC) and the relevant Harmonised Standard (EN 301 893) will facilitate the resolution of any interference cases that might emerge.

Europe in comparison with the rest of the world: number of hotspots

Number of Wi-Fi hotspots (in thousands), by geographic region

North America
Western Europe

Source: Pyramid Research. Data released March 2005

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