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Comcast to Congress: Freeing Up More 5 GHZ WiFi Spectrum Is Crucial

Tom Nagel, senior VP of business development, Comcast, told a House panel that it is crucial the FCC start freeing up more 5 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use to avoid growing WiFi congestion and allow for the 1 gigabit WiFi that requires larger swaths of spectrum.

Nagel was one of the witnesses at a House Communications Subcommittee hearing Nov. 13 on the "Challenges and Opportunities in the 5 GHz Spectrum Band." That was appropriate since the subcommittee was primarily responsible for freeing up that spectrum part of incentive auction legislation.

Cable already uses the band for WiFi but could use more capacity to deal with growing congestion, particularly in urban areas, and to put together faster, wider-band service.

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) pointed out that the band already hosts radar and satellite and other incumbents without interfering with each other.

Much of the hearing was about the tension between those like Nagel and Comcast, who want the FCC to get off the stick, and John Kenney from Toyota, who doesn't want the FCC to do anything until it can guarantee that unlicensed users in the band, including cable WiFi, do not interfere with auto collision-avoidance systems and other intelligence transportation systems (ITS) it says are just around the corner. (Editor's note: The ITS systems are different from the current sensor and/or camera-based avoidance systems currently in use on some cars).

Nagel suggested that automakers' 75 MHz of the band licensed to the automotive dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) was being underutilized and should not be allowed to continue to be so.

He told Congress he was confident that if both sides rolled up their sleeves, "engineer-to-engineer" a solution could be found.

Kenney did not disagree, but suggested that until then, and until the FCC could test and verify that there would be no interference, it should not proceed with freeing up the spectrum. He said that to do so could jeopardize the program and its potential to save thousands of lives. Kenney did acknowledge Cisco's work on interference protection technology and called it "promising."

Nagel made a point of asking the FCC to move quickly on modifying the rules on the existing 100 MHz of spectrum, currently licensed for satellite operations, that could almost immediately opened up to unlicensed sharing. The FCC has proposed removing restrictions on indoor use of the band and allow for higher powers.

FCC Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Julius Knapp, also a witness at the hearing, said the FCC was considering it while also vetting satellite user input.

The FCC and Comcast are on the same page when it comes to the promise of increased unlicensed WiFi use. Knapp acknowledged the engineering challenges, and said the FCC would not act until it was sure there would be no interference with incumbents. But he also said increasing access would greatly accelerate the growth of advanced WiFi at speeds of 1 gigabit as well as reduce congestion.

He said the FCC will not be taking away any of the incumbent users' rights as licensed operators and reminded the panel that unlicensed users are not allowed to interfere with those incumbents, while having to accept whatever interference they experience from those licensed services.

Nagel made his case for WiFi, pointing out that Comcast was now offering 350,000 access points, that WiFi represents tens of billions in economic value, and that WiFi was a powerful and flexible tool in emergencies. He pointed to Comcast's decision to open up hotspots during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing to provide Internet access when mobile services were down.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the subcommittee, took the opportunity to praise Comcast for that move.

She called it "wonderful" and suggested the entire committee shared that sentiment.