Wi-Fi is about to get bigger, better, and faster. Wi-Fi traffic in the United States is growing at 68% per year, and the number of homes with Wi-Fi is expected to reach 86% by 2017 (up from 63% today). We depend on Wi-Fi every day – from our mobile devices to surfing the internet at coffee shops. But problem looms: the unlicensed spectrum frequency bands that Wi-Fi depends on are in danger of becoming congested.
One big challenge is that the main band currently used for Wi-Fi—the 2.4 GHz band—is becoming increasingly congested, meaning potentially slower Wi-Fi for everyone. So today, the FCC voted to open up 100 MHz of spectrum for outdoor unlicensed broadband uses such as Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz frequency band.
Today, the FCC voted unanimously to unleash more unlicensed spectrum will support all the things we already use and further drive investment and experimentation—a 50% increase in spectrum available for Wi-Fi, to be exact. Consumer devices are already equipped to operate in the band, so they can easily be adapted to quickly take advantage of new 5 GHz channels. And a new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, has just been approved for the 5 GHz band. 802.11ac’s wide channels will allow for a better consumer experience. As Commissioner Pai has said, “the 5 GHz band is ‘tailor made’ for the next generation of Wi-Fi.”
This move is a perfect example of quick and decisive leadership at the Commission. Leaders saw a need for more spectrum, recognized the ability of engineers to drive technical solutions, gathered relevant information, and made a decision in a relatively short amount of time.
Policymakers understand the important role of unlicensed services like Wi-Fi to our wired and wireless broadband networks. President Obama’s Administration has touted the economic and consumer benefits of unlicensed spectrum, making unlicensed part of the Administration’s commitment to making additional spectrum available for wireless broadband to drive innovation, expand consumer services, and increase job creation and economic growth. (A commitment underlined in President Obama’s 2014 economic report to Congress).
Unlicensed services like Wi-Fi are designed to share spectrum with other users, and technological solutions permit Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies to coexist with incumbent users. This is a model for how we can efficiently deal with a resource like spectrum – promoting efficient, innovative, and flexible use. Congress understands this, and embraced this sort of balanced policy to address the challenges facing both licensed and unlicensed wireless service in the Jobs Act of 2012, which paved the way for today’s FCC action. As Commissioner Rosenworcel recently declared, today’s move indicates it is time to move away from old arguments that “pit licensed versus unlicensed,” and that instead, “we need to choose efficiency over inefficiency, and speed over congestion.”
But the trend towards reliance on unlicensed services like Wi-Fi shows no signs of stopping. There are other major ongoing unlicensed proceedings and we need the same sort of focus and attention from policymakers. The FCC’s action today is a welcomed development and we applaud leadership throughout the agency. It’s a good model for the work that the FCC and the technology community must do in other portions of the 5 GHz band and beyond to support the unlicensed economy.
We look forward to what’s next!