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FCC gives 5G and Wi-Fi a boost as you gobble up wireless

But not everyone is happy about the FCC's vote.

The Federal Communications Commission voted at its monthly meeting Tuesday on two measures to make more spectrum available for Wi-Fi and 5G networks.

The FCC voted 3-1 on rules for an auction of the 3.5 GHz midband spectrum, now used for naval radar, that can be used to deliver 5G. In a separate vote, it unanimously agreed to open up more spectrum for Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band.

Together the two measures highlight the agency's efforts to make more spectrum available to use for high-speed internet connectivity. Spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless internet service, and over the past few years the FCC has struggled to keep up with demand for access to this limited resource. While everyone agrees more spectrum is needed, groups often fight over the details and rules for accessing the spectrum.

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Wireless spectrum is in the air all around you. The trick is deciding who gets first dibs on it.

James Martin/CNET

The vote to free up 6 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi and essentially add another channel of unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi was without controversy, with the full support of all members of the commission. It should give Wi-Fi some breathing room and extra capacity to accommodate a growing list of devices using the unlicensed spectrum.

But the 3.5 GHz item, which established rules for an upcoming auction, is more controversial. The 3.5 GHz spectrum, known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, is coveted midband spectrum that big carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile see as valuable for 5G. But it's also spectrum that small rural fixed wireless service providers say can help them increase speeds and reach more customers.

The three Republicans voted in favor of the rules, which had been more than a year in the making, while Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the FCC, sided with small fixed wireless operators and dissented.

Rosenworcel's beef with the item? She believes the size of the licenses that will be auctioned off will be too big and will shut out small wireless providers that want access to the spectrum to provide better connectivity to rural areas. Instead, she argues, the size of the licenses disproportionately benefits larger carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, which want to use the spectrum to fill in 5G coverage in cities and suburbs.  

In 2015, when Democrats had controlled the FCC, they established technical standards for the spectrum that called for smaller census tract license sizes. But last year the Republican-controlled FCC began a process of making the licenses larger. They argued that the small licenses sliced and diced the spectrum to levels that would make it difficult for larger providers to bid on and create contiguous coverage in markets like New York or Los Angeles.

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Republican Michael O'Rielly, who led the item for the FCC, said settling on the county-sized licenses was a compromise that he believes will benefit small and large wireless providers alike. And denied that the agency was pitting small wireless ISPs against large mobile carriers or trying to carve out more spectrum to be exclusively used for 5G.

"After almost a year of conversations and considerable movement by some parties, which I greatly appreciate, it was clear that a consensus agreement could not be reached among all parties, so the Commission had to make the appropriate and justified policy decisions," he said in a statement. "Contrary to what some are asserting, we did not just throw our hands up in the air, throw a dart at a dartboard, succumb to a 'political solution,' or draw straws, because we couldn't figure out what to do."

He labeled as "pure gibberish" claims that the FCC had sided with large wireless companies looking for more 5G-only spectrum.

But consumer advocates like Phillip Berenbroick of Public Knowledge said the FCC's vote was a gift to large wireless companies at the expense of small wireless operators trying to serve rural America.

"Rules that were intended to help small, rural broadband providers acquire spectrum to serve their communities and close the digital divide have been replaced with licensing rules that have repeatedly failed to provide rural America with real, reliable, and affordable broadband access," he said in a statement.

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