The case for more Wi-Fi and unlicensed airwaves just got a lot stronger

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This week both the President and the Federal Communications Commission made a big push for unlicensed spectrum that could boost capacity on our Wi-Fi networks and fuel new services for consumers that rely on the free-to-use airwaves. Unlike the licensed spectrum mobile carriers use in their 3G and 4G networks, unlicensed spectrum is open to any device with a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi radio — and it’s long been the subject of a caustic political debate.

In the White House’s 2014 Economic Report, the Obama Administration called out the unlicensed airwaves as a key economic driver, used not just by companies looking to bypass cellular networks but also by mobile carriers themselves. The FCC and the administration are trying to create a more open regulatory environment that would make it easier to open up new spectrum for unlicensed use, often through sharing it with other users, the report said.

Obama and new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (right)

Obama and new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (right). Source: White House

The issue that will have a more immediate impact on consumers, however, was an item that appeared on the FCC’s docket for its March 31 open meeting. The commission will consider an order that would open up the 100 MHz in the 5 GHz band to widespread Wi-Fi use. Technically the band is already unlicensed, but it has a lot of restrictions to prevent interference with the satellite operators that use it. Last week, Globalstar lifted its objections to sharing the airwaves with more active Wi-Fi networks.

Technically 100 MHz is only a 15 percent increase over the amount of unlicensed spectrum available to Wi-Fi today, but those additional airwaves would be key to tapping the capabilities of new technologies like 802.11ac, which uses massive swaths of frequencies to deliver faster wireless broadband links. The first gigabit wireless products are starting to emerge, but making use of those capabilities are largely dependent on gaining access to larger chunks of spectrum.

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

This 100 MHz could be added to another 195 MHz of nearby spectrum the FCC is proposing for unlicensed use, which could mean we’ll see a huge expansion of the 5 GHz band beyond its current 550 MHz real estate. That opens up its potential not just for Wi-Fi but future radio technologies that could make use of that capacity. Remember, Bluetooth started out piggybacking on unlicensed frequencies in the 2.4 GHz and it has become a huge driver for new applications, including the internet of things. The FCC is looking at new lower-frequency bands for new unlicensed technologies like white spaces broadband.

The change in attitude toward unlicensed frequencies is subtle but significant. Washington – in particular Congress – has no love for free-to-use airwaves because it doesn’t generate the billions of dollars in revenues for federal coffers that a licensed spectrum auction could. The mobile industry lobby is also a powerful one, and though carriers are beginning to lean on Wi-Fi as an offload technology, its core mission is pretty straightforward: identify as much spectrum for licensed use as possible.

Source: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac

Source: AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac

The tech industry is getting firmly behind unlicensed with the realization that so many of their services are dependent on sharing data via technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Google, Microsoft, the Consumer Electronics Association and other tech players recently formed an organization WifiForward to lobby for more free-to-use spectrum, and they’ve recruited some unlikely allies. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are both founding members, and the cable industry’s lobbying arm, the National Cable & Telecom Association, was key to negotiating a compromise with Globalstar about shared use of this new 100 MHz swath.

The cable operators involvement in this issue is important politically, but it might become even more meaningful to the consumer as they ramp up their cable Wi-Fi build. The cable guys have tried to become mobile carriers before, but they’ve failed at every turn. Lately though, they’ve been adopting Wi-Fi en masse as a means of connecting their broadband customers wirelessly when away from home. If they can’t play the carrier game, they figure they can play the anti-carrier game. It’s very likely they’ll try to use those new networks to offer services similar to those of a mobile operator’s in the future.

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