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Regulators Propose Limited Set-Aside of TV Airwaves for Unlicensed Use

Advocates may have to make do with leftovers.

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Federal regulators will propose setting aside a limited amount of spectrum for use by unlicensed devices in an auction of TV airwaves next year.

“With the increased use of Wi-Fi, this spectrum has also become congested. Opening up more spectrum for unlicensed use provides economic value to businesses and consumers alike,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post.

A senior FCC official said Friday that a significant amount of spectrum would be assigned for use by unlicensed devices, estimating the figure could be anywhere from 12 megahertz to 20 megahertz.

But those airwaves would be widely scattered and located in the empty spaces left between TV channels to prevent interference. That makes them harder to use for companies hoping to set up unlicensed Wi-Fi-like services.

The agency is also proposing to allow unlicensed devices to use Channel 37, which had previously been set aside for use by radio telescopes and medical devices. A senior FCC official said the agency would impose some restrictions to protect medial devices, although the proposal could still draw concern from the medical community.

Tech industry advocates had asked the agency to set aside four TV channels nationally for use by unlicensed devices. But those efforts were not fully embraced by FCC officials under order from Congress to maximize revenue from the auction by selling off as many TV airwaves as possible. TV airwaves are incredibly valuable because they penetrate walls and networks can be built for them using a limited number of antennas.

Most airwaves can only be used by companies or federal agencies that hold specific federal licenses. Wi-Fi is an example of a type of network that operates on airwaves that are unlicensed, or available for use by anyone. Given the popularity of Wi-Fi networks, federal regulators have tried to increase the amount of spectrum available for unlicensed use in recent years.

Recently, the agency changed some rules to increase the amount of airwaves for Wi-Fi use in the 5 Ghz band. FCC officials are still looking at further increasing the amount of airwaves for Wi-Fi for use in nearby airwaves.

In a call with reporters Friday, aides to Wheeler laid out some details of their proposal to auction off the TV airwaves next year, but declined to talk about details of controversial bidding restrictions that leaked earlier this week.

We outlined those restrictions earlier this week. Wheeler has proposed allowing all wireless companies to bid on the spectrum licenses, but if bidding passes a certain to-be-determined threshold, up to 30 megahertz of the airwaves will be set aside for smaller carriers.

AT&T has already threatened to stay home and not bid because company officials are unhappy enough about that restriction (along with some other auction details). Other wireless carriers, including Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, have not yet weighed in on the proposal.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the rules in May.

This article originally appeared on

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