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January 11, 2013

FCC Chairman Announces Effort to Free up New Spectrum for Wi-Fi, Increasing the 'Gigabit Wi-Fi' Spectrum by 35 Percent

You have to give Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski credit. He understands who, when and where -- and in front of whom -- to present a major initiative. This week the subject was freeing up spectrum for ultra high-speed Wi-Fi for public spaces where service tends to be either non-existent or painfully slow. The place was the International CES Show in Les Vegas. 

During his now-annual interview at CES with Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Chairman revealed to the audience that the FCC wants to free up 35 percent more unlicensed spectrum in the 5GHz band beginning in February.  Simultaneously, back in Washington, D.C., FCC press people were supplying online cover with a release highlighting some of the details.   

The move not only underscored Shapiro’s introduction of Genachowski  as “the spectrum chairman,” but it certainly played well in the hall where the spectrum crunch has been an issue for device manufacturers and service providers alike. 

How big a deal is this? According to the FCC, making available up to up to 195 megahertz of spectrum in the 5 Ghz bad would be the largest block of unlicensed spectrum to be made available for expansion of Wi-Fi since 2003.  

Part of a larger effort

This latest effort is the start of what the FCC’s promises is going to be:

 “…A government-wide effort to increase speeds and alleviate Wi-Fi congestion at major hubs, such as airports, convention centers and large conference gatherings. In addition, this would also increase speed and capacity for Wi-Fi in the home where multiple users and devices are often on the network at the same time. This will increase and free up the unlicensed spectrum available for ultra-high-speed, high-capacity Wi-Fi -- known as ‘Gigabit Wi-Fi’ -- by up to 35 percent. “

Chairman Genachowski walked through his talking points well in Las Vegas. High points from his formal statement include: "We all know the frustration of Wi-Fi congestion at conferences and airports…When the FCC helped pioneer Wi-Fi nearly thirty years ago -- through an innovative spectrum policy that relied on unlicensed use -- no one knew the potential it held. But that FCC-created platform for innovation gave us cordless phones, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, benefitting consumers and our economy massively. We'll keep nurturing today's Wi-Fi as we also develop a next generation of spectrum policies to drive our mobile future for our innovators and our economy."

Fast but maybe not so fast?

As the saying goes, “the devil will be in the details.” While all of this delighted the audience and is sure to be an attention-grabber around the world -- particularly at the home offices of Apple, Google, Samsung, and Nokia just to name a few -- there is a little challenge to be overcome. That would be that the 5 gigahertz band is already used for other purposes by federal and non-federal users. As the Chairman is well aware, those with spectrum -- and this includes those federal users -- know this is valuable real estate and history says that while the FCC is looking for what it calls “significant collaboration with other federal agencies,” it is likely to have its hands full. 

In Las Vegas, Genachowski told Shapiro that the FCC also recognizes that some broadcasters would rather the unique “incentive auctions” for the spectrum re-farming effort not go forward. He stated, “But we need to do this for the country. It doesn't make sense in New York to have 28 full power licenses."

He also noted that once the incentive auction process is complete and the broadcast spectrum is “repackaged,” there would continue to be “whitespace” between DTV channels that could be used or unlicensed transmission devices. Such devices would be things like wireless routers and wireless home and business networks and these “whitespaces” have had numerous parties falling over each other for a land grab that some observers believe could transform the future of broadband because of the FCC’s promise that what will then be unlicensed spectrum recovered from the TV broadcasters will be, “available on a consistent, nationwide basis for the first time.”

Like I said, this is big, and Chairman Genachowski rightly took the path of “go big or go home!” 

One can only hope that his vision of expeditious proceedings turns out to be reality and not aspirational. The spectrum crunch, particularly in densely populated public areas, is not a theoretical construct. It is very real, and the FCC should be applauded for trying to help move this along quickly. Spectrum is a scarce resource and one of the FCC’s primary mandates is to be good stewards of it and balance the needs of commercial and government interests with those that can be left in the commons for innovation by all. I have my fingers and toes crossed on this one.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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