Open up your routers: FCC boosts spectrum available to Wi-Fi by 15 percent

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The Federal Communications Commission on Monday voted unanimously to open up 100 MHz of wireless spectrum to Wi-Fi use, which would increase the number of frequencies available to unlicensed wireless networks by 15 percent.

The airwaves in the 5 GHz band have always been unlicensed, but they’ve had much more stringent rules attached to them to prevent devices from interfering with other users, specifically government telemetry networks and Globalstar’s satellite ground links. In 2013, though, the Defense Department said it no longer needed the band. Earlier this year Globalstar reached an agreement with the FCC that would open the band up to both satellite and Wi-Fi use, clearing the way for today’s decision.

FCC Commissioners (L to R): Commissioner Ajit Pai, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly

FCC Commissioners (L to R): Commissioner Ajit Pai, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly

There will still be some restrictions in how the band can be used by Wi-Fi providers to prevent interference with satellite operators. Most notably, the FCC will require wireless ISPs to register any large-scale Wi-Fi deployments using the band, and will require Wi-Fi equipment makers to secure their routers so they can’t be illegally modified in ways that interfere with satellite communications. But the new rules make the outdoor operation of wireless networks in the 100 MHz swath possible.

“Wi-Fi is about to get bigger, better, and faster,” Unlicensed spectrum advocacy group WiFiForward said in a statement. “We commend the Commission for crafting a thoughtful balance between the needs of incumbents and innovators to make sharing possible. The FCC’s action will create a new environment for experimentation, new business models, and better Wi-Fi.”

WiFiForward is a consortium of Google, Microsoft, consumer device groups and sellers and the cable operators. Wi-Fi has become a cause célèbre in Silcon Valley, reflecting the fact that Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum technologies like Bluetooth are increasingly the network technnologies driving the tech industry’s services.

The most immediate benefactor of the new technology will be new 802.11ac networks, which can use massive chunks of frequencies to deliver gigabit connections and connect more simultaneous users to ultra-fast links.

This could be just the first step in the broad opening-up of the unlicensed band. The FCC is also weighing converting an additional 195 MHz of 5 GHz spectrum to unlicensed use.

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