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FCC Plans a Vote on New Airwaves Sharing Plan

Trying to keep up with consumer wireless demand.

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Federal regulators are set to vote next month on a plan to allow wireless carriers and companies including Google to share airwaves with the government, in an effort to make more airwaves available for future wireless devices.

It’s a novel new effort by the Federal Communications Commission, which has spent the last several years trying to free up more airwaves for wireless carriers trying to stay ahead of consumer demand, as well as setting aside some frequencies for new Wi-Fi networks. It would open up airwaves now used mostly by military radar systems.

It could be several years before consumers see any changes, but the move could make much more spectrum available for smartphones and future Internet of Things devices. While the airwaves aren’t really suitable for creating new long-range networks, they could be used to create smaller city-wide wireless broadband networks.

The proposal “provides an opportunity to try new innovations in spectrum licensing and access schemes to meet the needs of a multiplicity of users, simultaneously,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post Friday.

Essentially, the government has developed an airwaves-sharing plan that would protect radar systems near military bases and the coastline while auctioning off access to the airwaves in other parts of the country. A portion of the airwaves would also be reserved for free use by anyone with an FCC-certified device that doesn’t create interference.

The agency proposed the airwaves-sharing plan last spring, and the wireless industry and some tech companies have been arguing about the details ever since. Mostly, Google and others have been sparring over technical rules, including the size of protected zones around military bases.

Another issue involves which sorts of technologies can use the shared airwaves. Some wireless carriers are interested in using an “LTE-U” standard, allowing them to use 4G LTE equipment on unlicensed airwaves, which can be used by anyone. Other parties are more interested in using Wi-Fi technologies on unlicensed airwaves.

The think tank New America Foundation and public interest groups have raised concerns about the LTE-U standard and have asked the agency to create clear rules to prevent a possible “Wi-Fi blocking controversy” in the future.

Last Friday, CTIA, the wireless association trade group, told FCC staffers that the agency should adopt technology-neutral rules and set a framework “for allowing different technologies to work together.”

The FCC is expected to approve the proposal at a meeting next month.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.