Comcast: Unlicensed Spectrum Now Top Route to Web Access

Comcast exec Tom Nagle plans to tell the Senate Communications Subcommittee that the FCC needs to loosen restrictions on use of the 5 GHz band if Wi-Fi is going to meet the growing Internet access needs of increasingly mobile customers.

That includes during emergencies like the Boston Marathon bombing, when Comcast opened up its Wi-Fi access points when cellular service got bogged down.

This is according to the prepared testimony of Comcast's SVP of business development and strategy for communications and data services. The plan was to deliver that message at an April 25 Senate Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing on wireless communications , but that has been postponed the committee said late Tuesday (April 23).

The company's strategy for providing Wi-Fi data services, Nagel indicates, is to continue to ramp up the use of unlicensed spectrum hot spots, including those of other providers.

He says that the most popular method of accessing the Web is now via unlicensed technologies, which he also points out in his testimony can sometimes be critical sources of connectivity in times of crisis. He used the Boston Marathon bombing as one example.

"[I]n the immediate aftermath of the recent attacks at the Boston Marathon," he said, "commercial mobile wireless networks were overloaded, but Comcast opened its network to anyone - including non-Comcast subscribers - with a Wi-Fi device to establish communications with loved ones, leading to significantly increased usage of our Xfinity WiFi network in Boston and the surrounding communities."

According to Nagel, Comcast has more than doubled its Wi-Fi hot spots from over 25,000 at the end of 2012 to now more than 55,000. Combined with agreements with other cable operators, Comcast subs now have access to over 100,000 such access points, he told the senators.

He also said that the company logs more user sessions in a month than it did in the first two-and-a-half years of the Xfinity WiFi project.

He said that if those numbers are to continue to grow to meet the demand of customers, the government must 1) make more unlicensed spectrum available and 2) remove "unnecessary regulatory barriers" to more efficient use of current spectrum.

To that end, he praised the FCC's vote to free up more spectrum in the 5 GHz band and proposal to remove indoor-only restrictions and allow for increased power levels. But he also said that there is "more work to be done."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.