FCC Doubles Unlicensed WiFi Spectrum in 5 GHz Band

As expected, the FCC voted 5-0 Monday (March 31) to loosen the rules on lower 5 GHz spectrum to allow for indoor use and higher power levels, so long as that does not interfere with mobile satellite service in the band.

The move adds 100 MHz of unlicensed spectrum to the WiFi pot. Both Republican commissioners made a point of saying that it would provide a boost to the hundreds of thousands of hot spots cable ops have been rolling out.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel added that it would also allow for more experimentation and innovation.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Comcast, Charter Communications, Google, Time Warner Cable and several other tech-oriented organizations and companies recently formed WiFiForward,a coalition that sought the release of more unlicensed spectrum toward the use of Wi-Fi.

“Today’s FCC action marks a significant step forward in the vital effort to free up more spectrum for unlicensed use. By enabling higher power, outdoor Wi-Fi operations to share an underutilized portion of the 5 GHz band, Chairman Wheeler and his colleagues have embraced a win-win solution that will help alleviate existing congestion and deliver a substantially faster Wi-Fi experience to American consumers," National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell said in a statement.  "NCTA joins in celebrating today’s accomplishment and looks forward to working with the Commission, Congress, and other interested stakeholders to craft equally productive solutions in other spectrum bands to help meet the burgeoning consumer demand for unlicensed services."

“This enormous addition to the Wi-Fi spectrum pool will not only alleviate congestion, it paves the way for the adoption of the next generation of Wi-Fi technology, which engineers call 802.11ac,” Comcast EVP and CTO Tony Werner wrote in this blog post. “This new technology will enable Comcast and others to offer Wi-Fi speeds approaching 1Gbps – that’s why many refer to it as Gigabit Wi-Fi.  Once Gigabit Wi-Fi is deployed, consumers will be able enjoy high quality HD video on their tablets, laptops, and smartphones, in their homes or outdoors, without the annoying pauses and quality reduction often experienced when multiple devices are sharing the same Wi-Fi connection at the same time.”

Werner added that the spectrum will also allow the operator and others to alleviate congestion in high capacity areas, including parks, stadiums and apartment buildings.

Comcast is approaching the deployment of 1 million WiFi quasi-public hotspots via its work with the “CableWiFi” roaming consortium (Time Warner Cable, Bright House, Cox Communications and Cablevision Systems are the other members),  and its activation of “XfinityWiFi” signals in home-side cable modem gateways that are accessible to authenticated Comcast high-speed Internet subscribers.

“The FCC vote to expand Wi-Fi access in the 5 GHz band is a great step forward for wireless broadband,” added CableLabs president and CEO Phil McKinney.  “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.”

“[B]y facilitating the use of Wi-Fi in the U-NII-1 band, the Commission opens the door for exciting and innovative new products and technologies for consumers,” Charter said in a statement. “The Commission's actions will enable consumers to access super-fast Wi-Fi technology and ease congestion in existing bands."

--Multichannel News technology editor Jeff Baumgartner contributed to this report.

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.