Baby monitors. Bluetooth headsets. Wi-Fi Internet access. E-Z Pass. These are just some of the common technologies used by consumers every day that run on free, public airwaves known as unlicensed spectrum.
Unlicensed spectrum is the interstate highway of the wireless world: Anyone can use it, provided they stay within their lane. Advocates say freeing up more unlicensed spectrum could spawn new technologies, such as super Wi-Fi networks capable of covering entire neighborhoods or even cities. But some lawmakers remain wary of giving away something so valuable for free, and Congress is watching closely as the Federal Communications Commission makes critical decisions about unlicensed spectrum as it prepares to hold a spectrum auction next year.
Any device that sends or receives signals to transmit sound, video or data uses spectrum, and most of the spectrum in the United States is designated for the use of a particular government agency or commercial industry under licenses allocated by the FCC, which aims to prevent the nation’s countless devices from interfering with each other.
Wireless carriers have proven ravenous in their demand for spectrum in recent years, as consumers’ mobile data consumption has skyrocketed, but the amount of spectrum available remains scarce. That has driven the value of the most-technically-useful spectrum into the billions of dollars and prompted wireless carriers to buy up whatever spectrum licenses they can find, subject to the FCC’s approval. The spectrum crunch has also created pressure on the government to free up more airwaves for commercial use.
To initiate next year’s spectrum auction, the FCC will solicit offers from TV broadcasters to either pull their stations off the air or have them repacked into another channel. The agency will then assemble the various chunks of newly released spectrum in the 600 megahertz block and auction them to wireless carriers, in hopes of maximizing revenue.
The high cost of spectrum has shut out all but the largest telecom and technology companies from being able to experiment in the wireless space. Realizing this, the FCC first acted in 1989 to allow for some unlicensed use in high- frequency airwaves known as “junk bands.” Any company is allowed to make new devices that operate wirelessly in this spectrum, so long as they don’t interfere with other devices making use of the band.
Gradually, the availability of unlicensed spectrum for experimentation produced a number of innovations, including baby monitors, garage door openers and wireless microphones. The FCC acted again in the ’90s, freeing up more spectrum for unlicensed use, which ultimately spawned commercial Wi-Fi technology. By 1999, the computing world had adopted standards for Wi-Fi, and the technology took off.