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FCC Votes to Expand Wireless Spectrum: A Win for Wi-Fi

Wireless spectrum

By Rob Alderfer, CableLabs –

Today is a big day for Wi-Fi and everyone that uses it – which is, of course, all of us. Our Wi-Fi is about to get twice as good. How? By doubling the size of the Wi-Fi pipe.

The FCC voted today to double the amount of wireless spectrum that Wi-Fi uses in the 5 gigahertz (GHz) band. That’s 100 megahertz (MHz) of newly useful Wi-Fi bandwidth.

You might have heard of 5 GHz – it’s the globally harmonized home for the latest Wi-Fi technology: 802.11ac, also known as “gigabit Wi-Fi” for its incredibly fast broadband speed. 802.11ac is beginning to hit the market in force – the MotoX and latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones, among many other devices, have it already. Pretty soon, 802.11ac will be in just about everything.

The only problem with gigabit Wi-Fi is that regulations prevented it from reaching its full gigabit potential.

Until today.

It has taken a lot of work by many dedicated people to get to this moment. A little over a year ago, the FCC proposed a number of ways to increase Wi-Fi bandwidth. Additional spectrum is needed to support the continued growth of wireless broadband, which we have written about, and is a central feature of the Administration’s technology policy and the National Broadband Plan.

[Related: CableLabs' Work on Wireless Spectrum]

A strong desire to make progress in wireless policy is not enough, however. Success requires attention to detail. In the context of 5 GHz, that means understanding how Wi-Fi can share the airwaves with the other wireless services that use the same spectrum.

That’s where CableLabs comes in. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Colorado, we developed a sophisticated simulation of potential interference between Wi-Fi and a satellite phone system that uses part of the 5 gigahertz band. This analysis served as the technology framework for today’s FCC action.

“The FCC vote to expand Wi-Fi access in the 5 GHz band is a great step forward for wireless broadband,” said Phil McKinney, president and chief executive officer of CableLabs. “This action substantially increases  Wi-Fi capacity, making gigabit Wi-Fi speeds possible. CableLabs’ insights on spectrum sharing, including sophisticated simulation of how Wi-Fi will interact with other services using the same spectrum, played a key role in helping the FCC move forward.”

Cable operators will put this new bandwidth to good use, along with the rest of the Wi-Fi community. But to be clear, today’s win for Wi-Fi is just the beginning. Regulators in other nations should take note and consider how to fully enable the global gigabit Wi-Fi standard. And the FCC has more work to do as well: Today’s newfound 100 MHz of Wi-Fi bandwidth, while significant, is only 20% of the national goal for new wireless broadband spectrum.

What’s next, then? A framework for spectrum sharing between Wi-Fi and nascent connected vehicle technology would be a good place to start.

To be continued …

Rob Alderfer is a Principal Strategic Analyst for CableLabs, the global research and development consortium of the cable industry, where he guides technology policy and strategy across the industry. He was the Chief Data Officer of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission from 2010 to 2012, leading data-driven wireless policy to encourage investment and innovation in wireless broadband. Previously, he was responsible for overseeing communications policy and programs on behalf of the Administration at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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