WiFi is about to get faster.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced March 31 that it has modified the rules around how Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices can operate in the 5GHz spectrum band and made 100MHz of spectrum more accessible for use in homes and public areas.
The indoor access is notable—previously, it was restricted to outdoor use—but even more impactful is that the FCC has increased the amount of allowed power.
“Currently U-NII devices operate in 555 megahertz of spectrum in the 5 GHz band and are used for WiFi and other high-speed wireless connections,” the FCC said in a statement. “… The rules adopted today … will provide more robust access in the 5.150-5.250GHz band.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the change a “big deal.”
“The Commission is taking 100 MHz of unlicensed spectrum at 5GHz that was barely usable … and transforming it into spectrum that is fully usable for WiFi,” Wheeler said in a statement. “To put this 100 MHz number into perspective, that’s more usable spectrum than the 2.4GHz band that gave birth to WiFi in the first place.”
Wheeler said the Commission is “committed” to making more unlicensed spectrum available for use and plans to “carefully study” the possibility of expanding access “in up to 195 additional megahertz of spectrum in two other portions of the 5GHz band.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the change comes at the intersection of social and business trends: the increase in mobile traffic and the tech world’s move toward sandboxes. While sandboxing—creating a space for experimentation within a larger, unaffected whole—is often used with applications, the “sweetest spot for the sandbox could come from combining its experimental possibilities with the power of unlicensed spectrum,” said Rosenworcel.
“The innovation potential is big,” Rosenworcel continued. “By making more of our airwaves subject to access by rule rather than license, we reduce barriers to entry for innovators. We open up spaces for creative use and experimentation in the wireless network, from the software layer to the equipment layer.”
Commissioner Ajit Pai also applauded the change (and pointed out that he proposed it last summer), while calling on the FCC to keep the pedal down.
“We must redouble our efforts on making an additional 195MHz of spectrum available for unlicensed use,” Pai said in a statement.
“Achieving this goal will not be without challenges; for all the talk of spectrum sharing, the federal government has dragged out the process for evaluating new unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band. But I am confident that common sense will eventually prevail and that consumers at some point will enjoy the greater bandwidth, reduced congestion and cheaper devices that increased use of the 5GHz band can bring.”
Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge had the same response.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, called the change “a very good thing” and the “first concrete action” the FCC has taken toward improving public access to unlicensed spectrum in five years.
“But in a world where every refrigerator, thermostat, and even farm equipment has a ‘smart’ chip, we cannot afford for the FCC to take another 5 years to expand the availability of open spectrum,” Feld said in a statement.
“As Commissioner Rosenworcel emphasized,” Feld continued, “the FCC must continue to seize opportunities—particularly as part of the upcoming effort to repurpose broadcast spectrum in the ‘incentive auction’—to open spectrum to all of us to meet the growing demand for open spectrum.”