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'Wi-FM' uses FM radio signals to reduce interference, boost your Internet speeds

Contrary to popular belief, unstable Internet connection speeds are no mystery. Wireless networks in neighboring spaces, homes, or apartments can all interfere with the speed of your connection, even if the networks operate independently of one another. A new system called Wi-FM hopes to change this, allowing co-existing wireless networks to stop competing, and start sharing. This means that your connection speed may not suffer when your neighbor is watching Netflix, and vice versa.

Aleksander Kuzmanovic of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering worked to develop Wi-FM with two Ph.D students: Marcel Flores and Uri Klarman. Flores presented the team’s research at the International Conference on Network Protocols in San Francisco last week, where he elaborated the need for a method of subtle communication between isolated wireless networks. “Even if I configure my Internet to choose a channel that is least likely to overlap with my neighbors, the problem cannot be avoided. You can’t find a quiet channel when there are 30 other networks in the same building. My speed is 10 percent of what it should be,” Klarman said. The team’s field tests of prototype Wi-FM systems boosted connection speeds across all participating networks up to 50 percent, with an average boost of 35 percent better signal strength.

Related: This wireless router makes setting up home Wi-Fi as easy as plug-and-play

Wi-FM tackles the data bumps that competing connections experience regularly – when networks send data out at the same time, they can interfere with each other. On a larger scale, this kind of data interference slows down all the network connections, which isn’t good for anybody. Transmitting devices with Wi-FM capabilities will be able to listen to FM radio signals in order to send data at times when other networks aren’t being used as much. The technology creates a sharable pattern of busy and quiet transmission times, so that interference is reduced and networks don’t interfere with one another during high Internet usage times.

The ambient radio signals on the FM frequency are attractive for many reasons. For one thing, many mobile devices and smart phones are already equipped with FM chips inside them. FM signals also pass through walls and solid surfaces without obstruction, so Wi-FM can listen to nearby data traffic patterns and manage transmissions accordingly. Best of all, devices that don’t come pre-equipped with FM chips would only require minor software updates in order to make use of the Wi-FM listening system.

In a way, Wi-FM is designed to be solve the problem of competing wireless networks on the path of least resistance. Wi-FM fosters the peaceful co-existence of multiple wireless networks, all plugging along at full speed, without any human effort or intervention. The team’s research paper establishes the concept of “neighborhood harmonization”, which would align communities over a single FM station or a range of FM signals, depending on the size of the community and the number of networks at play. Kuzmanovic believes their tested Wi-FM algorithm could be a simple software download from app stores on Android and iOS devices, but his ultimate goal is for companies like Google and Apple to roll out Wi-FM capabilities as part of their native operating systems.