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FCC doubles 5GHz spectrum in prep for one-gigabit Wi-Fi

Licensed and unlicensed spectrum 'less oil & vinegar and more peanut butter & jelly'

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In a rare bit of bipartisanship, the Republican and Democratic commissioners of the US Federal Communications Commission have unanimously voted to loosen the rules governing the operation of Wi-Fi devices operating in the 5GHz band.

"The new rules will make 100MHz of spectrum more accessible for use in homes and congested spaces like convention centers, parks, and airports and increase the potential for more unlicensed spectrum innovation," the FCC said in its Monday announcement.

Specifically, "the rules adopted today remove the current restriction on indoor-only use and increase the permissible power which will provide more robust access in the 5.150-5.250GHz band," the FCC said.

According to the FCC, the relaxation of the rules for Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices will allow for "accelerated growth and expansion of new Wi-Fi technology" that will operate at speeds of one gigabit per second "or more."

As the "U" in "U-NII" makes clear, the spectrum used by Wi-Fi – and, for that matter, everything from baby monitors to garage-door openers – is unlicensed and therefore available to all, although certain rules and regulations, of course, must be followed.

Touting the FCC's move to decongest Wi-Fi through Monday's order, the commission chairman Tom Wheeler added in a statement, "At the same time, it moves us another step closer to ending the analog-era debate of licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum. In 2014, licensed and unlicensed spectrum are more complimentary than competitive. They are less oil & vinegar and more peanut butter & jelly."

Wheeler also noted that Monday's freeing up of the 100MHz is only one step in the commission's effort to increasing unlicensed spectrum, and that the FCC "will continue to carefully study technical analyses" in its consideration of freeing up an additional 195MHz in two other areas of the 5GHz band.

In her statement, Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn also threw her support behind freeing up that additional 195MHz. Fellow Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who said "we are doubling the unlicensed bandwidth in the 5GHz band overnight," didn't mention that 195MHz in her statement – but she did call for more unlicensed spectrum, and echoed Wheeler's "peanut butter & jelly" complementary assessment.

"Good spectrum policy will always require a mix of licensed and unlicensed services," Rosenworcel said. "Treating them as competing is a relic from the past, because going forward they are complementary – and more and more devices and services are bound to incorporate the use of both."

Republican commissioner Ajit Varadaraj Pai, in his statement, also called for the addition of 195MHz in the 5GHz band, and his party-mate Michael O'Reilly, though mentioning no specific number, wrote that "the Commission will have to find additional unlicensed spectrum to accommodate the growth in Wi-Fi."

Despite partisan wrangling in other areas of the US government, there does appear to be one commission that is unanimous in its opinion. "More Wi-Fi, please," says the FCC. ®

Bootnote

Monday's unanimity seems to have brought out a wee bit of jollity in otherwise cantankerous Washington. Noting that high-speed wireless broadband is projected to carry 4.8 exabytes of data each month by 2018, commissioner Pai noted that amount was the equivalent to 11.78 billion episodes of Magnum, P.I. "Like Tom Selleck's mustache," he wrote, "that's impressive!"

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