The FCC has voted unanimously on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking freeing up 195 MHz of additional spectrum in the 5 GHz band for Wi-Fi.
That is the band cable operators already use to provide over 100,000 hot spots, which the National Cable and Telecommunications Association pointed out in praising the vote.
The FCC has not set a timetable for a final vote, but has said it will move as quickly as possible. There will first be a several-week period of public comment on the proposal.
The commission, which voted on Feb. 20, will have to find a way to free up the spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi use while not interfering with military, FAA and automotive collision-avoidance systems operating in the band, but FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said following the vote that it was not a new challenge for the commission -- virtually all Wi-Fi spectrum is shared with other uses -- and he was confident all 195 MHz of the new spectrum could be freed up. He said the FCC would continue to "lean into" every idea to free up more spectrum for licensed and unlicensed use.
Office of Engineering and Technology head Julie Knapp said the move will increase the current Wi-Fi spectrum allocation in the band by 35%. It will also streamline certification of Wi-Fi devices.
The commission is looking to decrease congestion in the band as well as boost speeds. As wireless carriers have offloaded traffic to Wi-Fi to ease congestion, it has created congestion problems for Wi-Fi in venues like airports, hospitals and conventions centers, and that problem would be moving to the home, said Genachowski. If the FCC does vote to free up all 195 MHz, it would be the biggest new swath of Wi-Fi spectrum freed up in a decade, the chairman pointed out.
"The cable industry has been working to keep up with consumer demand for broadband everywhere, already deploying over 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country, adding value to existing subscriptions by extending in-home connections to places where consumers want to stay connected," NCTA said in a statement. "But existing Wi-Fi spectrum is growing increasingly congested and more must be found to meet skyrocketing consumer demand and enable increased speeds of next-generation Wi-Fi. More extensive use of the 5 GHz band, along with additional unlicensed spectrum in other bands, will permit cable companies and other innovators to continue to provide Americans with new benefits, businesses with new opportunities, and those in need with life-saving connections."
The FCC was under instructions from Congress to try and open up more unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum in the 5 GHz band, but commissioner Ajit Pai pointed out that those instructions -- in legislation creative the broadcast incentive auctions -- was only a mandate to look for 120 MHz, and praised the FCC's move to free up more.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel continued to push for finding ways to incentivize government users to use spectrum more efficiently, using the carrot of compensation. Commissioner Robert McDowell said that freeing up unlicensed was necessary, but no substitute for creating more licensed spectrum opportunities by freeing up government spectrum for licensed uses.
AT&T agreed with McDowell about continuing to fee up spectrum for licensed use.
"Clearing and auctioning spectrum below 3 GHz for exclusive, licensed use must remain a priority for the U.S. Government as we continue to seek ways to address the growing spectrum crunch and the ever growing demand for mobile broadband services," said AT&T in a statement. "However, freeing up spectrum for unlicensed uses can also play an important role in more fully utilizing spectrum that is not ideal for mobile broadband use."
National Telecommunications and Information Administration head Larry Strickling, who oversees government spectrum users, emphasized that potential interference issues must be addressed before new wi fi spectrum in the 5 Ghz band can be freed up.
"I welcome the FCC's comprehensive approach to addressing the complex technical issues that must be solved to allow expanded sharing of the 5 GHz band among unlicensed devices and incumbent users," he said in a statement. "I am pleased that the FCC is also addressing in this proceeding key technical and enforcement issues in other 5 GHz band segments, including those in which interference problems have arisen and to which additional Federal operations could be relocated from other bands."
Strickling sent a letter to Genachowski on the eve of the Wednesday vote advising him of key technical issues and interference mitigation strategies the FCC would need to consider before a final vote. He also pointed out that the FCC needed to take into account the NTIA's own spectrum-clearing efforts--95 Mhz in the 1755-1850 band--that may require it to move federal users to the 5 Ghz Mhz band.