Today Wi-Fi has become a crucial part of most communications networks, including wired broadband and wireless providers, who offload a significant portion of their data traffic to wireless networks. The growth of Wi-Fi has attracted a new level of interest in unlicensed spectrum, starting with the unused spectrum between TV channels known as the “white spaces.”
In 2010, the FCC adopted an order allowing developers to create devices that use the white spaces, after establishing a set of databases meant to prevent interference. A host of companies, including Google and Microsoft, have shown significant interest in the area; the search giant is in the final stages of being approved as a database manager by the FCC.
But the amount of white spaces spectrum available for unlicensed use in the long term depends on the FCC, which is under political pressure from House Republicans to maximize the amount of spectrum for sale to wireless carriers.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, prefers licensing 600 MHz spectrum to wireless carriers for two reasons: The airwaves are better suited to covering long distances; and to maximize the revenue raised from the auction, according to a committee aide. The aide noted, though, that Walden has expressed support for licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
“The additional spectrum will help address the spectrum crunch commercial wireless providers face and will increase bandwidths and speeds for Wi-Fi users,” Walden said. “The subcommittee will continue its oversight of both the FCC and the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] to ensure the benefits of this legislation inure to both licensed and unlicensed users.”
But Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, the subcommittee’s senior Democrat, notes that the unlicensed wireless sector is generating $50 billion to $100 billion per year for the U.S. economy.
“This kind of growth cannot be ignored,” Eshoo said. “The FCC should ensure that the 600 MHz band plan is structured so that spectrum for unlicensed innovation is available on a nationwide basis. This will produce great economic benefits and could yield untold technological discovery.”
Interestingly, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also backs those wanting to maximize the amount of spectrum sold at auction. “I come down on the auction side,” he said in an interview. “We need the money for D Block,” the national public safety communications network that will be funded by auction proceeds.
The FCC’s band plan will lay out how much spectrum will be up for auction, depending on how much is relinquished by the TV broadcasters, and may include some of the white space spectrum that is currently unlicensed.
“Repacking, or the reassignment of channels to broadcast television stations that remain on air after the incentive auction, is required to free up contiguous blocks of spectrum for mobile broadband use,” an FCC spokesman said. “As directed by Congress, the FCC will ensure this process makes all reasonable efforts to preserve the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee.”
Experts believe that plenty of white spaces and unlicensed spectrum will be available in rural areas where it can be used for broadband. But the large urban markets are another story, with crowded spectrum conditions and few unused channels.