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FCC clears the way for faster Wi-Fi

The commission opens up 100MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi in the 5GHz band and makes 65MHz of lower spectrum available

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U.S. regulators are opening up spectrum that could allow for Wi-Fi services with speeds of one gigabit per second and faster.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday voted unanimously to open up an additional 100MHz for Wi-Fi-enabled devices in the 5GHz band of spectrum, and remove indoor-only restrictions on Wi-Fi devices and increase the amount of power they can use in the 5.15 to 5.25 GHz band of spectrum. The restrictions had been in place to protect Globalstar, which provides mobile and fixed satellite services in that area of spectrum.

Globalstar had raised interference concerns about new Wi-Fi devices operating in the spectrum, but general counsel Barbee Ponder said last month that the company did not object as long as its services could be protected.

"This change will have real impact, because we are doubling the unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.

The new spectrum will help Internet users get higher Wi-Fi speeds and should ease congestion in crowded areas, the FCC said. But the unlicensed spectrum will also give innovators more spectrum with which to experiment, Rosenworcel said.

"The power of unlicensed goes beyond on-ramps to the Internet and off-loading for licensed [mobile] services," she said. "It is the power of setting aside more of our airwaves for experiment and innovation without license. It is bound to yield new and exciting developments. It is also bound to be an economic boon."

The FCC's decision moves the U.S. closer to ending an old debate about the value of licensed spectrum versus unlicensed spectrum, added FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"In 2014, licensed and unlicensed spectrum are more complementary than competitive," he said. "They are less oil and vinegar and more peanut butter and jelly. Wireless carriers are using Wi-Fi to offload more than 45 percent of smartphone traffic to fixed networks."

The FCC action will allow so-called unlicensed national information infrastructure (U-NII) devices to operate in the spectrum. U-NII devices now operate in 555MHz of spectrum in the 5GHz band, and are used for Wi-Fi and other high-speed wireless connections. 

U-NII devices create Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless home local area networks to connect smart phones, tablets and laptops to the Internet, and are used by wireless ISPs to provide broadband service to rural areas, the FCC said.

The FCC vote also modified some technical rules in an effort improve protection for incumbent systems by requiring manufacturers to secure their devices against illegal modification that could cause interference.

In other action, the FCC voted to make another 65MHz of spectrum available for flexible use wireless services, including mobile broadband.

The vote sets flexible-use regulatory, licensing, and technical rules for 65MHz of spectrum in the AWS-3 band, between 1695 and 2180MHz. The spectrum will be available on a shared basis with federal agency incumbents based on plans from the agencies.

Several tech groups, including the Telecommunications Industry Association, praised the FCC's spectrum actions.

"This is a watershed moment for American consumers who are tethered to their smartphones and tablets," Grant Seiffert, president of TIA, said in a statement. 

The AWS-3 decision makes new spectrum available to address mobile consumer demand, and with the 5GHz decision "the FCC is optimizing critical swaths of unlicensed spectrum to enable next generation Wi-Fi," Seiffert said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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