NCTA Seeks Obama Action on 5.9 GHz Spectrum

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is pushing President Barack Obama to make opening up the 5.9 GHz band for more Wi-Fi a priority in his remaining days in office, saying the need is urgent and the spectrum deficit dangerous.

It signed on to a joint letter to the White House from a group of tech and internet companies, schools and libraries.

While NCTA is sparring with Google in the set-top sphere, and has butted heads with Free Press over consolidation, they are all together in their support of opening up the band.

Cable operators have been pushing for more 5 GHz spectrum to fuel their Wi-Fi hotspots, the industry's primary mobile broadband play.

"While Americans’ dependence on unlicensed technologies for Internet access continues to skyrocket," they told the President, "the spectrum resources that power our devices are perilously insufficient. As a result, our Wi-Fi bands are becoming dangerously congested. The problem has become so severe that Cisco and Apple have recently warned customers that the core 2.4 GHz unlicensed band has become so overtaxed that it 'is not considered suitable for use for any business and/or mission critical enterprise applications.' We must act now to find more unlicensed spectrum."

The President has not been shy about wanting to free up more spectrum for broadband—it has been a tech centerpiece of his Administration—and the FCC has been looking to do so in the 5.9 GHz band, but there remain issues of possible interference with connected car technology that it is still working through.

The FCC has an open inquiry into using the band for unlicensed, and the Department of Transportation has agreed on testing the co-existence of vehicle-to-vehicle communications (intelligent transportation system [ITS] devices) and Wi-Fi, but the groups say the President needs to prioritize finding a solution, which it suggests is out there.

They say the President needs to implement "one of the promising coexistence options that would reconfigure the band to permit Wi-Fi to share the band safely with… crash-avoidance applications.”

They also take aim at ITS, saying it has yet to make meaningful use of that band and that other technologies are overtaking it. "Fortunately, there is still time for both Wi-Fi and ITS to design their wireless operations with sharing built in so the band can enable ITS and benefit Wi-Fi consumers. Thus, the ideal moment to put sharing criteria in place for the 5.9 GHz band is now."

They say the 5.9 GHz band is 1) "uniquely large enough to support wireless innovation and investment, and occupies a low enough frequency range to support widespread consumer operations; 2) "is immediately adjacent to the existing 5.8 GHz unlicensed band, which already uses Wi-Fi to support millions of consumer devices and automotive functions for drivers today," 3) and will "allow the United States to deploy next-generation 160-MHz-wide gigabit Wi-Fi technologies, greatly increasing throughput and performance."

Finally, they say the band is unutilized in the vast majority of the country, with far fewer government operations than other potential Wi-Fi bands and widespread use of ITS systems still 15-20 years away.

Other strange-bedfellow groups NCTA is in league with on the issue include the American Library Association, Consumer Federation of America and Next Century Cities.

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.