FCC Working to Free Up Wireless Spectrum for Broadband, WiFi

The FCC task of designating more underused spectrum for wireless broadband use is being complicated by a need to also set aside spectrum for WiFi.

The Federal Communications Commission, ahead of 2014 spectrum auctions highly anticipated by the wireless industry, is expected to focus in 2013 on creating options for a faster Internet.

The government agency needs to figure out not only how to free up underused spectrum for more efficient use by mobile broadband providers, but whether to set aside some of that spectrum for anticipated new technologies, how to appease disagreeing factions with strong opinions on the latter, and even how to prevent WiFi networks, which have been used to keep cellular networks from bogging under high-traffic use, from becoming bogged down themselves.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski believes that some of the highly sought-after spectrum that will be auctioned next year—much of it from television broadcasters—should be saved for mobile services that have yet to be introduced or invented. In doing so, he's of a similar mind with Google and Microsoft, Bloomberg reported Jan. 23.

The major opponents of this vision are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, which collectively serve almost nine out of 10 wireless subscribers, according to Bloomberg.

Carriers are in a mad race to roll out Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G networks to meet the growing demands of subscribers, who now lean on their networks to support smartphones, PCs, laptops, tablets and increasingly more.

Genachowski, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show a year ago, said that walking around he saw smart—i.e., Internet connected—textbooks, appliances, thermostats, health and fitness equipment and the work to develop smart cars, smart homes, smart businesses and smart cities.

"If you shut off the Internet," Genachowski said during his keynote, "virtually nothing on the CES floor would work."

Speaking at the same event in early 2013, Genachowski said that WiFi is facing a traffic jam, and the FCC wants to free up a "substantial" amount of spectrum to relieve it. The spectrum would be in the 5GHz range and would be shared with the government for its purposes.

Ultimately, the FCC believes it can increase 5GHz spectrum by 35 percent, Genachowski said, according to a Forbes live blog from the event.

The Bloomberg report citied Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as saying at a December 2012 hearing that the amount of spectrum the FCC wants to use for WiFi, instead of auctioning to the wireless carriers, "could cost the government as much as $19 billion."

As the FCC decides how to conduct the auctions—the rules need to be established by mid-2013—the FCC has plenty of arguments ahead of it, Bloomberg added, noting that the agency can set limits on acquisitions by various companies and that it will be allowed to bar particular companies from bidding on particular blocks of spectrum.

For such policies and others, the FCC has been accused by various parties of "picking winners and losers" in the mobile space.

The keys to a successful auction will be keeping it as simple and balanced as possible, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a Jan. 23 report from Bloomberg BNA.

"There are so many parts to the incentive auction process, we must remember that they all interrelate," said Rosenworcel. "For instance, choices we make regarding interference will not only impact broadcast service but also how much revenue will be raised to address the priorities Congress set out in the law."

An additional agenda of the auctions is to create a nationwide emergency communications wireless network for the nation's first responders. It's hoped that the auctions will raise $15 billion, $7 billion of which would go toward the emergency network.

So far, only half the amount of spectrum needed to get to $15 billion has been designated.

In a December 2012 letter to Walden and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Google, Microsoft and 300 other tech companies made a plea for more WiFi spectrum to be put aside.

"If the commission does not designate more unlicensed spectrum," they wrote, according to Bloomberg, "the fuel for this growth engine will be lost."