FCC Votes to Drive WiFi Expansion

FCC meets remotely on Nov. 18 (Image credit: N/A)

In a victory for cable broadband operators and computer companies, the FCC has voted to free up the lower 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band for wireless broadband while transitioning the remaining upper 30 MHz to the latest iteration of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, and cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology.

That vote--on a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM)--came at the FCC's virtual meeting Wednesday (Nov. 18). It was unanimous, but with the Democrats concurring because they would have preferred the vote come under the upcoming Democratic-led commission.

The FCC said the item promotes the efficient and effective use of the band by freeing up long-underused spectrum and would deliver immediate benefits combined with adjacent spectrum to provide for up to 160 MHz wide channels to help meet the growing demand for WiFi.

Those cable and computer companies pushed the FCC open up the entire 75 GHz--which had been reserved for licensed V2V services, to share between WiFi and V2V, but supported chairman Pai's proposal to divide up the band instead, giving each their own swath of spectrum.

WiFi operators will get immediate access to the spectrum for unlicensed indoor operations and, potentially, outdoor as well. The FNPRM tees up rules for that outdoor use and asks for comment on whether the FCC should allocate additional intelligent transport systems spectrum in the future.

Auto manufacturers have argued that sharing the band with WiFi, including a decision to split it up, could interfere with intelligent transportation Systems (ITS)/V2V safety systems, but the FCC said the new rules would improve auto safety by transitioning the upper 30 MHz from the "long-stalled" DSRC V2V technology, which the FCC said "has done virtually nothing to improve automotive safety" to C-V2X.

Related: Ford Defends Stance on WiFi Interference to V2V

The item includes a timeline for transitioning incumbent intelligent transportation system licensees to the upper 30 MHz band, and from DSRC to C-V2X, as well as rules to allow for full-power unlicensed Wi-Fi in the lower 45 MHz band. 

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said the FCC had paved the way for cutting-edge uses of WiFi. O'Rielly pointed out that he had proposed the potential split of the band into 30 MHz for cars and 45 MHz for WiFi.

Saying he was bordering on ecstatic, O'Rielly was pleased that talk -- much of it from him and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel -- had finally morphed into action. He was particularly pleased that the WiFi spectrum would be available almost immediately, in some cases with only software upgrades. 

He did say that he thought the time to relocate V2V out of the 45 MHz should have been six months rather than the year the item gives them. He said waiting a full year for the spectrum to be fully available is "much too long." He also said the FCC should move to allow the outdoor use teed up in the further notice.

He also said the item should have mandated that the 30 remaining MHz should only be used for public safety, rather than for services already available using other frequencies. He did note that the further notice does ask if the FCC should, indeed, restrict use to safety. O'Rielly also said he would not have codified C-2VX as the specific technology for the 30 MHz. 

Commissioner Brendan Carr said that he agreed with all his colleagues that freeing up midband spectrum is critical. He conceded that talking about it is much easier than freeing it up. He thanked chairman Pai and FCC staff for that effort. Carr said the FCC has not kicked the can down the road, but instead took on the tough spectrum fights, including in the 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, and 6 GHz bands, C-Band, and others. 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said kudos were due O'Rielly, who she called her partner in trying expand WiFI in the 5.9 GHz band. She said the item would "supersize WiFi, which everyone is relying on during the pandemic. But Rosenworcel said she would only concur with the item, citing Democratic members' of Congress request that the FCC not vote any controversial issues, given the upcoming change in administrations.

Starks also concurred citing the request by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to FCC chairman Ajit Pai this week that the FCC pull the item as one of those "controversial" issues that should await the Democratic led FCC. The controversy is the pushback by auto makers and DSRC proponents, including some government agencies.

Pai said he keeps hearing that DSRC should be given "just a little more time." But, "no more," he said, "time's up." He said that was because there was a pressing, pandemic-underscored, need for more unlicensed spectrum for telehealth and other services. 

He said the item would help meet the demand for spectrum, punching above its weight when combined with adjacent bandwidth. He said moving from DSRC to C-2VX would transition from a failed technology to a promising one for safety-related services. Notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, the FCC does care about automotive safety, he said.

Pai pointed out the FCC has already granted temporary access to the ITS spectrum for WiFi use during the pandemic, a point made by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who didn't wait for the vote to weigh in on the prospect of freeing up that WiFi spectrum generally. 

“The pandemic has placed Wi-Fi at the center of nearly every aspect of our daily activities – it is essential to how we learn, work, see a doctor, and connect with family and friends," he said in a statement before the meeting. "The 5.9 GHz proposal before the Commission would quickly increase capacity for gigabit Wi-Fi by creating a 160 MHz-wide channel with the neighboring band, while also providing spectrum for transportation safety. Additionally, the proposal is important for enabling the delivery of broadband using fixed wireless services. My constituents have seen the importance of this during the pandemic with the Special Temporary Authority that was granted to a wireless internet service provider in my district. We were long overdue for making the 5.9 GHz band available for unlicensed use well before the pandemic.”

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.