New opportunities for internet access
The turning point, however, came in 1997 when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved the 802.11 Standard, the basis of what is now known as WiFi. The existence of a standard that guaranteed the interoperability of equipment produced by different manufacturers fuelled an impressive growth of the market, which in turn drove competition and led to a dramatic decrease in the cost of devices. In particular, the portion of the ISM band between 2400 and 2483 MHz is currently available in most of the world without need for a license and is widely used by laptops, tablets, smart phones and even photographic cameras.
The role that unlicensed spectrum played in the enormous success of WiFi high speed Internet access cannot be overstated. Airports, hotels and cafes all over the world offer WiFi Internet access on their premises, and low cost wireless community networks have been built both in rural areas and in cities covering considerable geographic areas – all thanks to the availability of unlicensed spectrum.
Mobile phone operators, which have to pay dearly for spectrum licenses, were initially quite hostile to this apparently unfair competition. But with rocketing data usages thanks to a burgeoning smartphone industry, they soon realized that off-loading the traffic to WiFi was in their best interest, because it relieved the traffic in their distribution network (known as backhaul). Now mobile phone operators encourage their customers to use WiFi wherever it is available and to use the more expensive cellular service only when out of range of any WiFi Access Point.
This demonstrates the value of unlicensed spectrum even to traditional telecommunications operators who often have lobbied against it.