Wired Connectivity

Researchers Use FM Radio to Improve Wireless Signals

17 November 2015

Many of us encounter issues with wireless Internet from time to time.

"Most people think it's a mystery," says Aleksandar Kuzmanovic, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering. "They get upset at their routers. But what's really happening is that your neighbor is watching Netflix."

There are many factors that affect how your Internet network performs. Researchers from NorthwesternUniversity discovered that problems caused by competing networks can be solved by simply using an FM radio.

According to them, unless a home is located in the middle of nowhere, it is likely that neighboring networks will interfere with one another, especially in cities where homes are close together.

Kuzmanovic and his PhD students Marcel Flores and Uri Klarman wanted to find a way for devices in the same place to communicate—FM came to mind.

"Our wireless networks are completely separate from each other," says Flores, the lead author of the study. “FM is everywhere."

The team invented a technique called "Wi-FM," which enables existing wireless networks to communicate through ambient FM radio signals.

The team agreed on FM for several reasons. First, most smartphones and mobile devices are already manufactured with an FM chip hidden inside. It is also able to pass through walls and buildings without being obstructed, which makes it reliable.

Minor upgrades to software would allow devices to take advantage of Wi-FM.

Using Wi-FM would eliminate competing network data. When network data are sent at the same time, they bump into each other that cause both to stop travelling completely and slow down Internet speeds. On contrary to that, Wi-FM allows the device to "listen" to the network and select the quietest time slots according to FM radio signals.

"It will listen and send data when the network is quietest," says Flores. "It can send its data right away without running into someone else or spending any time backing off. That's where the penalty happens that wastes the most time."

Wi-FM identifies the usage patterns of other networks in order and then determines what is the best time to send data by detecting the lightest and heaviest traffic times. It can also adapt if the patterns change.

"Our system can solve these problems without involving real people," says Kuzmanovic. "Because are you going to knock on 30 doors to coordinate your wireless network with your neighbors? That is a huge management problem that we are able to bypass."

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