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Growing Unlicensed Spectrum, Growing the Wireless Economy

The FCC has the ability to ratchet up the airwaves used for unlicensed wireless services. But we need to act fast and act smart.


Chances are you used wireless technology today. Maybe it was the shiny new tablet or smartphone you received as a gift over the holidays. Or maybe it was the old cordless phone you have had lying around the house for too many years to count. It also could have been one of those things you use every day without much thought, like your television remote control. So many devices and so much of our lives are now dependent on wireless connectivity.

It is no wonder, then, that the demand for our airwaves is growing at a fast clip. Indeed, the need for more licensed spectrum — the airwaves used by wireless carriers — has been widely recognized. But what is less well known is that congestion in our nation’s unlicensed spectrum, which is used for services like Wi-Fi, is also getting crowded.

Why does this coming crush in unlicensed spectrum matter?

For starters, the unlicensed economy represents economic growth. Today, unlicensed wireless devices contribute between $16 billion and $37 billion to our economy annually. To put that in perspective, that is more than Americans spend on milk and bread each year, combined.

The unlicensed economy also represents innovation. Unlicensed airwaves are open for use by anyone willing to experiment. As a result, countless innovations that have made our lives easier and more convenient every day — like garage-door openers and baby monitors — are dependent on unlicensed spectrum.

Finally, the unlicensed economy is critical for Internet connectivity. Today, through Wi-Fi, more than one half of wireless data connections are offloaded onto unlicensed spectrum. Most of that traffic uses a part of the 2.4GHz band. But this spectrum is the home of countless other devices, like cordless phones, wireless speakers and videogame consoles. So, while the 2.4GHz band continues to service us well, it is getting mighty congested.

All of this means that more access to unlicensed airwaves is important — for growth, for innovation, for Internet connectivity. So developing new opportunities for unlicensed spectrum needs attention.

The good news is that the Federal Communications Commission — where I work — has the ability to ratchet up the airwaves used for unlicensed wireless services. But to do so, we need to act fast and act smart.

So, what can the FCC do right now?

We can fix our existing rules for high-frequency airwaves in the 5.1GHz range. If that sounds technical, think about the wireless routers you may have in your home. Today, they use the 5.7GHz band. But the 5.1GHz band could also be made available for Wi-Fi through a change in our rules. In fact, if the FCC extends to the 5.1GHz band, the same script that has made the 5.7GHz band a Wi-Fi success story, a simple software update could significantly boost your wireless router. We could effectively double your unlicensed bandwidth overnight.

Expanding unlicensed service in the 5.1GHz band should not, however, be the end of the story. We can seize unlicensed opportunities across other spectrum bands, too. For instance, that means finding lawful ways to use guard bands in the 600 megahertz spectrum now used by broadcasters. This could help extend the reach of Wi-Fi even further.

So, if we get our unlicensed spectrum policies right, we can seriously expand Wi-Fi opportunities. At the same time, making more unlicensed spectrum available can give a jolt to the coming Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communications.

But above all, the time to act is now — and expanding unlicensed service in the 5.1GHz band is a great place to start. Given the multiplying number of wireless devices in our lives and the growing demands on our airwaves — licensed and unlicensed — now is not a moment too soon.

Jessica Rosenworcel is a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission. Reach her @JRosenworcel.

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