Rosenworcel: Unlicensed Vs. Licensed is False Choice

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel Friday put in a plug for using the guard bands in repacked 600 MHz broadcast/wireless spectrum for unlicensed wireless, while focusing on a move she said could essentially double the unlicensed bandwidth in the 5 GHz band now used by cable ops for Wi-Fi.

She was preaching to the choir at the inaugural event of WifiForward, a coalition of cable operators and computer companies—the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Google are both members—pushing the government to open up more spectrum for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi, which has become the cable operator's mobile broadband play of choice. For example, Comcast said this week it is approaching 1 million Wi-Fi hot spots and will be adding hundreds of thousands more. Those include spots shared via an agreement among the Cable WiFi roaming consortium members, which also include Time Warner Cable and Cox.

Rosenworcel was speaking at the "Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz Fast Lane" breakfast at the National Press Club, so her focus was the 5 GHz band (cable opertor Wi-Fi spectrum is in that band) rather than the broadcast spectrum, but she, like WifiForward, is looking for spectrum wherever it can be found, so she said there could be spectrum to mine in the 3.5 GHz band and added: "We also should find lawful ways to use guard bands in the 600 MHz spectrum now used by broadcasters."

Broadcasters are not opposed to unlicensed spectrum use, so long as it does not interfere with their signals.

She pitched unlicensed as a driver of economic growth—an estimated $140 billion annual value to the economy, innovation—a "sandbox for experimentation from garage door openers to smart phone traffic apps; to internet connectivity—cable's bread and butter."

Rosenworcel said the notion that there has to be a choice between licensed and unlicensed is a "simplistic" relic. The choice, she said, is between efficiency and inefficiency, speed over congestion, and to get the former, the growing demand for wireless must be met.

She suggested that the 5 GHz band was a good place to start in the near term. She pointed out that the Defense Department said last summer that they did not need a portion of the lower 5 GHz band for telemetry and that it could be made available for Wi-Fi. "We should seize this opportunity right now," she said, which she said could effectively double the unlicensed bandwidth overnight.

Cable ops have been pushing the FCC to open up more 5 GHz spectrum, but getting pushback from, among others, the auto industry, which also uses the band and is expanding that use with auto control technologies like collision avoidance that they argue could suffer interference.

While cable ops already uses the band for Wi-Fi, they could use more capacity to deal with growing congestion, particularly in urban areas, and to put together faster, wider-band service.

At a Hill hearing late last year, Tom Nagel, senior VP of business development and strategic initiatives, Comcast, told a House panel that it is crucial the FCC start freeing up more 5 GHz spectrum. The FCC is said to be working on a 5 GHz item for its March 31 meeting.

The FCC and Comcast are on the same page when it comes to the promise of increased unlicensed Wi-Fi use. Office of Engineering & Technology head Julie Knapp acknowledged the engineering challenges at the Hill hearing, and said the FCC would not act until it was sure there would be no interference with incumbents. But she also said increasing access would greatly accelerate the growth of advanced Wi-Fi at speeds of 1 gigabit as well as reduce congestion.

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.