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FCC Increases Airwaves for Wi-Fi, Sets Auction Rules

Regulators open up more airwaves for wireless gadgets, close TV station loophole.

Wi-Fi networks may soon become a little less congested after federal regulators Monday voted to set aside more airwaves for use by unlicensed networks.

The amount of space for Wi-Fi basically doubled Monday after Federal Communications Commission officials unanimously agreed to open up 100 MHz of airwaves in the 5 GHz band for Wi-Fi devices and networks. Satellite phone provider Globalstar previously had exclusive use of those airwaves, but FCC officials approved a plan to open up those airwaves to Wi-Fi networks as well.

“This transforms the spectrum from barely usable to usable for Wi-Fi,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Faster connections, less congestion will make it easier to get online.”

The move was part of a broader campaign by federal officials to make more airwaves available for wireless phones and other gadgets. Next year, the FCC is planning to auction off to wireless providers airwaves currently used by TV stations.

On Monday, agency officials also approved new rules for a separate auction of airwaves this fall for wireless broadband use. The agency released technical rules for the auction, including the size of chunks to be sold and the geographic areas for the licenses. FCC officials will require auction winners to adopt interoperability standards so that smartphones and other wireless gadgets will also work on neighboring airwaves.

There’s still some disagreement between various wireless carriers about whether the FCC screwed up by opting to auction off smaller chunks of airwaves. AT&T wanted larger blocks, while T-Mobile wanted smaller ones. CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, generally cheered the FCC’s actions on devoting more airwaves to Wi-Fi networks and the auction rules, saying it would “bring significant benefits to consumers.”

The broadcast industry was less enthusiastic about two other actions that federal regulators took Monday to close a loophole that some TV stations have used to lower their costs and maximize their leverage in fee negotiations with cable operators.

The FCC approved a plan to restrict arrangements that some TV stations have used to get around the agency’s long-standing (and unchanged) media ownership rules. The agency will bar stations from forming partnerships to share advertising or news staffs. These so-called “sidecar” deals, officially known as joint-sales agreements, have allowed TV broadcasters to effectively control the financial side of another local station without technically purchasing the station.

Federal media rules bar TV station owners from controlling more than one major station in a market.

Media watchdog groups have complained about the practice for more than a decade. Sinclair Broadcasting is among the media companies that have most frequently used these sales agreements.

Broadcasters would have two years to unwind current deals. In a nod to minority broadcasters who complained that the action would make it harder for them to survive, the agency will consider waiving its ban in some cases where such agreements increase ownership diversity or are in the public interest.

Dismissing broadcaster complaints about the action, Wheeler said the agency was “closing the loophole” used by TV stations to skirt ownership rules. “At the same time, we make it clear that JSAs are appropriate when they further those statutory goals of competition, diversity and localism,” he said.

The FCC’s two Republican members voted against the plan, saying it would hurt smaller broadcasters by increasing their costs. TV stations are expected to appeal the decision to the federal courts.

The FCC Republicans joined their three Democratic colleagues in approving a related plan that would prevent the top four TV stations in any market from banding together in fee negotiations with pay-TV providers. Cable operators have complained about paying higher fees to TV stations, which generally get passed directly on to consumers.

Not surprisingly, cable operators expressed support for the FCC’s moves Monday, while the National Association of Broadcasters complained that “the notion that a punitive crackdown on local TV stations will lead to lower cable rates is simply not credible.”

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