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Feds Poised to Open More Airwaves for Wi-Fi

Federal regulators are set to approve a proposal later this month to open up more airwaves for Wi-Fi networks.


Wi-Fi networks could get a lot less crowded soon under a proposal set to be approved later this month by federal regulators that would provide more airwaves for wireless devices.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed changing some technical standards on some airwaves currently used by satellite phone provider Globalstar so they can also be used by unlicensed Wi-Fi devices. The agency is expected to approve the plan at a March 31 meeting.

The agency began looking at using those airwaves for Wi-Fi last year as part of a broader review of how it could free up more spectrum for unlicensed use.

The proposal took a step forward last week when Globalstar reported reaching an agreement with the cable industry over technical standards that would allow its satellite phone service to coexist with Wi-Fi antennas in the 5 GHz band. Cable companies operate Wi-Fi networks on nearby airwaves and had pressed the FCC to open up the Globalstar spectrum for broader use.

The change would allow the FCC to “effectively double unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight. That will mean more unlicensed service — and less congestion on licensed wireless networks. That’s win-win,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday at an event sponsored by WifiForward, an industry group funded by Comcast, Google, Microsoft and other tech and cable companies. She made similar comments in a recent editorial published at Re/code.

Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is an investor in Re/code.

Although the agency is set to move forward on Globalstar’s 100 MHz swath of airwaves, FCC officials are still trying to figure out what to do with two other nearby chunks of frequencies that could be used for Wi-Fi networks.

Some of those airwaves were set aside for use by car companies for wireless systems years ago, but those technologies are only now starting to get off the ground. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced plans to look at crafting safety rules for car-to-car communications.

Car companies are unhappy that the FCC is looking at opening up those airwaves for use by Wi-Fi devices and are already voicing concerns about how sharing those airwaves could result in interference and potential car crashes.

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