FCC Proposes Faster, Higher Capacity WiFi to Reduce Spectrum Crunch

NEWS ANALYSIS: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed giving additional spectrum to WiFi to enable higher speeds, greater capacity and to reduce problems that occur when many people try to access WiFi at the same time.

The idea of a faster, higher-capacity WiFi sounds great, doesn’t it? But right now the best you can do, realistically, in public places is to access 802.11n WiFi and hope for the best. Unfortunately, in busy sites such as airports, trade shows or even in offices with a lot of wireless traffic, that may not be good enough to provide reliable wireless connections.

Fortunately, that may change. Federal Communications Chairman Chairman Julius Genachowski said he wants to give more spectrum to WiFi to enable broader availability of “Gigabit WiFi.” The idea would be to either reassign portions of the 5 GHz band or share it with other users to enable a larger number of WiFi channels and thus provide more bandwidth.

“We all know the frustration of WiFi congestion at conferences and airports,” Genachowski said during an interview with Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association during an event at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9.

“Today, the FCC is moving to bring increased speed and capacity to WiFi networks by increasing the amount of unlicensed spectrum for WiFi. As this spectrum comes on line, we expect it to relieve congested WiFi networks at major hubs like convention centers and airports. It will also help in homes as tablets and smartphones proliferate and video use rises.”

Genachowski said that the FCC would begin a governmentwide effort to improve WiFi by increasing spectrum by 35 percent. Genachowski said the FCC would add an additional 195 megahertz to the existing 5 GHz WiFi spectrum. An FCC spokesperson said in a prepared statement this is the largest expansion of unlicensed spectrum since 2003.

While the opening up of new WiFi frequencies will eventually reduce WiFi congestion, don’t expect it to make your iPad run faster next month. Spectrum availability is just the first step in providing faster WiFi. Once it’s available, makers of routers and access points have to upgrade their products to use the added capacity and speed. Then the makers of laptops, smartphones, tablets and all other wireless devices have to follow suit.

As is the case with other improvements in WiFi, the whole process can take years. A good example is the new gigabit WiFi standard 802.11ac. Right now, this is a draft standard. But the first routers have already hit store shelves. Once the standard is finalized, these devices should be able to be upgraded to take advantage of the additional bandwidth.

But right now there aren’t any 802.11ac devices on the market except for the routers. And the devices that are available now don’t work at those gigabit speeds you keep hearing about.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...