Tech firms say schools need more spectrum

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If President Obama really wants to put Wi-Fi in every U.S. classroom, then the government will need to release more unlicensed spectrum for public use — or so says WifiForward, a spectrum lobbying group backed by Google, Microsoft, the cable companies and the Consumer Electronics Association.

WifiForward prepared a paper this week that calls for regulators to open up or lift restrictions on big swathes of the 5 GHz band so it can be used to build bigger, badder gigabit Wi-Fi networks. It also calls for the government to open up more white space spectrum and move forward with its plans to create a shared public-private band at 3.5 GHz, which could be used to link those Wi-Fi networks to the internet proper without using wires or fiber.

Obama is pushing an ambitious plan called ConnectEd to link 99 percent of all U.S. schools with high-speed broadband, and many tech companies like Apple and Microsoft and carriers like AT&T and Verizon have signed on as partners, pledging money, services and equipment to the effort. But WifiForward claims that if the administration wants to ConnectEd right, it needs to think in terms of very fat pipes.

A school of 1,000 students and staff needs at least a 1 Gbps broadband link to ensure every pupil and teacher has access to a 1 Mbps connection, according to a study by the State Educational Technology Directors Association that the paper cited. By 2018, there will be an estimated 56.5 million K-12 students in the U.S., and they will need a combined 56.5 Tbps of bandwidth. Those kind of capacities will require more spectrum than available today, WifiForward claims.

Of course, opening up more unlicensed spectrum wouldn’t just benefit schools, since that new capacity would be available to any company, organization or consumer using a Wi-Fi router. Emphasizing schools is a good way to pull on the public’s heartstrings, but WifiForward’s arguments are still valid. Unlicensed airwaves produced a tremendous amount of innovation around the world. Investing in more unlicensed technologies will keep that innovation going.

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