FCC takes first step toward allocating more Wi-Fi spectrum

The commission opens a rule-making process to allocate additional high-frequency spectrum for unlicensed use, paving the way for faster Wi-Fi and less congested hot spots.

Marguerite Reardon
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
3 min read
FCC Commissioners L to R: Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, Chairman Julius Genachowski, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Commissioner Ajit Pai. FCC

The Federal Communications Commission took the first steps today toward freeing up more wireless spectrum to boost Wi-Fi data speeds and ease congestion on Wi-Fi networks in hotels, airports, and homes.

During its meeting today, the five-member commission approved a proposal that will allow 195 megahertz of additional wireless spectrum in the 5GHz band to be used for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. This will increase the amount of available unlicensed spectrum by 35 percent. This is the largest block of wireless spectrum the FCC has freed up for unlicensed use in 10 years.

The commission also agreed to create rules that would streamline the process to use more devices in this upper 5GHz band of spectrum.

What this additional spectrum means for average consumers is that they will eventually get faster uploads and downloads in Wi-Fi hot spots. And the additional capacity will also help alleviate congestion in major hubs, such as airports, convention centers, and other places where large numbers of people congregate.

The 5GHz band of spectrum that the FCC has targeted for unlicensed use is already being used by federal and non-federal users. And the agency will have to work with these other agencies to either free up the spectrum or share it with these other users.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski talked about freeing up this spectrum for unlicensed use last month at the Consumer Electronics Show. Today's vote means that the proposal is now open for public comment. At the end of the process, the FCC will write up official rules and regulations, which the agency will once again vote on.

The FCC has been working the past few years on freeing up additional wireless spectrum for wireless broadband use. The agency is currently writing rules for a wireless spectrum auction of lower frequency spectrum that broadcasters are voluntarily giving up. And the commission has also worked to reclassify spectrum designated for satellite use so that it could be used for wireless broadband services.

Chairman Genachowski has said several times publicly that it's also important to free up more unlicensed wireless spectrum. The commission has already taken steps in recent years to free up unlicensed spectrum in lower frequency bands. Lower frequency spectrum allows signals to travel longer distances and to penetrate obstacles like walls more easily.

In 2010, the FCC allocated unused spectrum between broadcast TV channels, called white spaces, for unlicensed use. And as part of the upcoming incentive broadcast wireless auctions, the FCC has also proposed to set aside some low-band spectrum for unlicensed use.

But the idea of setting aside spectrum for unlicensed use has been controversial. Some lawmakers would like to see the FCC auction as much spectrum as possible instead of allocating it for free unlicensed use. The thinking is that this spectrum can generate revenue to help pay off the national debt or fill budget deficits.

But FCC commissioners believe that freeing up more spectrum for unlicensed use will lead to innovation, as it has in the past. Commissioner Ajit Pai said:

Flexible unlicensed spectrum use was one of this country's great innovations in the 1980s...The Commission expanded several so-called junk bands to permit additional unlicensed uses and streamlined the Part 15 rules accordingly. Unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands is now some of the most valuable spectrum in the world for broadband. And consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries of unlicensed-use technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The commission also approved new regulation that will allow consumers to use approved and licensed signal boosters to fill gaps in wireless coverage. The new rules create two classes of signal boosters. One will be for consumer use while the other will be used by businesses. Each will have their own set of requirements to minimize interference with other wireless networks. The move is expected to alleviate dead spots in cellular wireless coverage.