The world has gone wireless in many ways. The notion of spectrum is operational all around us, at work and at home. Many devices and systems now rely on some form of wireless communication. But keeping all that connectivity straight from a radio frequency perspective is a challenge felt from the mobile carrier backbone to home Wi-Fi systems. The key to success, in all wireless niches, is RF spectrum management.
Mixed signals, same frequency
If you and I speak at the same time, a person listening would have a hard time deciphering what either of us is saying. Similarly, driving down a highway where two radio stations overlap on the same frequency, we hear an unintelligible mix of audio and noise.
The examples are many, but the premise is common: Too many signals at the same frequency make for unusable applications. Words can't be discerned. Music can't be heard. Drones fly out of control. Wireless network frames are dropped. Conflicting signals on the same frequencies are generally not good.
Keeping it orderly at the macro level
As a licensed amateur radio operator, wireless LAN professional, commercial drone pilot and Air Force veteran who spent a decade plying the craft of electronic warfare, I'm always fairly astounded at how orderly the global management of RF spectrum is -- when people play by the rules.
Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and International Telecommunication Union define the overall frequency frameworks that various technologies can operate in. From satellite communications to car key fobs, every technology has an allotted band of frequencies. Collectively, the whole beautiful mess of the RF spectrum is impressive to see visually.
Why this is important for enterprises
Picture someone in a suburban library, scouring the internet and looking for employment on one of the library's computers. They nearly get their resume uploaded. But the desk phone rings, and the computer connection drops. What happened? The same thing that happens at a football game when the visiting team brings in its wireless intercom system that fails miserably because the stadium has a beefy new Wi-Fi system.
Interference is a terribly destructive force when it comes to wireless communications. In the library example, the cordless phone using 2.4 GHz stepped all over the Wi-Fi network and borked the PC's connection. At the football game, the Wi-Fi system laid waste to the intercoms. These real-world examples show why every environment needs at least basic spectrum management policies.
RF spectrum management is one of those needs that gets more complex with scale. Large public venues, universities, hospitals and even port facilities use a wide range of wireless communications. If you have the luxury of operating on licensed frequencies, many of the potential headaches subside because there are fewer competing systems, and those you do contend with are coordinated by the FCC, in the U.S. at least.
In the unlicensed bands, where countless consumer and enterprise wireless products fight amid common frequencies, coordination is often critical to success.
Good policy makes for RF harmony
Successful complex RF environments employ rules about bringing new wireless technologies into the mix. In stadiums and conference centers, usually, a designated frequency coordinator will make sure per-event devices are the right mix in order to limit harmful interference. In facilities like hospitals and universities, departments are usually required to consult with an RF expert before investing in wireless technologies. If these steps are not taken, building controls and audiovisual (AV) equipment, for instance, could interfere with Wi-Fi, or vice versa.
Unfortunately, many vendors employ poor wireless technologies under the hood, given the environments they hope to sell into. Another part of the problem is when vendors promise their gear will work on any Wi-Fi environment but they have antiquated or quirky requirements. Clearly, before any wireless purchase, make sure to vet every potential problem.
Thankfully, a new generation of IoT tech, like Long-Range WAN, and a growing recognition that Wi-Fi frequencies -- 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz -- need to be off-limits for other systems among enterprise professionals of various disciplines. A successful frequency coordination program leads to various departments -- including security, medical equipment and AV -- seeing the value in asking if a potential service will fit into the environment, rather than trying to force it.