FCC Poised to Boost Cable WiFi Spectrum

PLAN WOULD DOUBLE UNLICENSED 5-GHZ BANDWIDTH FOR OPS TO TAP INTO
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WASHINGTON — Cable’s current winning streak at the Federal Communications Commission — which is poised to rule in the industry’s favor on TV-station joint services agreements and coordinated retransmission consent — is extending to WiFi.

The FCC is poised to double the amount of unlicensed spectrum in the 5-Gigahertz band available to cable operators for their WiFi-based wireless broadband services.

MSOs are increasingly relying on WiFi hotspots as a mobile broadband play (see “Cashing in on Connectivity,” March 17, 2014), and already have access to 100 Megahertz of spectrum in the 5.7-GHz band.

That available spectrum will increase to 200 MHz with a March 31 vote, and could be doubled again if the FCC can work out interference issues with the Defense Department in the 5.9-GHz band and with car manufacturers in the 5.3-GHz band.

The FCC has scheduled a vote for March 31 on the 5GHz band report and order. It has only said publicly that the item will make the band “more useful for consumers and businesses, and reduce the potential for harmful interference to certain incumbent operations.”

WIDENING THE NET

According to a source familiar with the item, the FCC is essentially transferring the rules under which cable operators currently use the 100-MHz band to the 5.1-GHz band. That means a power increase of as much as 1 watt with a directional antenna, and outdoor as well as indoor use — in other words, the spectrum can be used for wireless hotspots, rather than just wide area networks (WANs) or local area networks (LANs).

Cable operators will be able to use some of the same equipment for the 5.1-GHz band, and in some cases may only have to make a software upgrade, though the FCC will still have to certify the new software.

MSOs were said to have preferred a regime with fewer software-certification requirements and were still discussing the matter with FCC officials, according to the source, but cable is said to already be declaring victory on getting access to the new spectrum.

Paving the way for the March 31 vote were proposed adjustments to cable-operator antenna standards supported by mobile satellite-services company Globalstar, the only company opposed to the FCC’s proposal to free up the band for unlicensed use. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has said it is committed to not causing harmful interference to Globalstar, but it also pushed the FCC to extend the flexible rules to 5.1 GHz.

Globalstar has told the FCC it supports the NCTA’s proposed antenna standards to limit power in some circumstances. The FCC appears to be OK with that, too.

ENCOURAGING ‘FIRST STEP’

Cable operators are happy with the result, NCTA senior vice president James Assey signaled last week, but more needs to be done.

“We are very encouraged by this first step that the commission is going to take,” he said at a Free State Foundation conference in Washington. “But it is a first step and we are going to need to try and continue to keep this engine running.

“We are very encouraged by the action teed up later this month in the 5-GHz proceeding that the FCC has shown real leadership in,” he added. “That has not been an easy process.”

But he also called it a first step that needs to be followed by others. “The fact of the matter is we have more Internet adopters, we have more wireless devices out there, we have more intensity of use as people migrate from reading Web pages to wanting to watch videos, and we don’t see any signs of that hockey stick stopping,” Assey said. “We’re foolish if we don’t figure out a strategy that will allow both licensed and unlicensed [spectrum use] to grow.”

The FCC tackled the 5.1-GHz band because it could be freed up the fastest.

“5.1 was easiest so we got that out of the way first,” said the FCC source. “We’re continuing to work on 5.3 and 5.9.”

It was the easiest to solve, said the source, but the FCC still wants to help free up some of the spectrum in the bands used by or reserved for auto-crash avoidance systems and the Defense Department, as long as it can do so without interfering with those incumbents.

TAKEAWAY

The cable industry has been pushing the government to free up as much WiFi spectrum as possible to fuel its mobile broadband play of choice.

WiFi by the Numbers

86:
Percentage of homes expected to have WiFi by 2017.

68:
Percentage annual increase of WiFi traffic.

137 million:
WiFi-only tablets sold in 2013.

222 billion:
Economic value of WiFi to U.S. economy.

Source: Wifi Forward

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