Recent Wi-Fi successes encourage FCC to relax 5GHz restrictions April 08 2014

By Peter White, Principal Analyst Wi-Fi and digital multimedia

Last week saw a significant breakthrough for US Wi-Fi spectrum in terms of flexibility and capacity. The FCC signed a ruling which increases the radiated power that can be applied in parts of the 5GHz unlicensed spectrum; removes the indoor-only requirements in the 100MHz from 5.150-5.250GHz; and extends the 5.8GHz band by an extra 25 MHz, from a prior 5.825GHz upper limit to 5.85GHz.

Some of these changes are to bring the US in line with other regimes across the world, while others come as a result of two key factors – cable industry lobbying pressure and a period of experience where no real complaints against unlicensed usage have been upheld. Indeed, every case of interference registered in the past has now been attributed to equipment that was either faulty or which did not adhere to the standard, proving that unlicensed spectrum works and is safely managed.

And with that, the FCC commissioners promised to make at least another 195MHz of further spectrum available in future in the 5GHz band, along with the creation of more unlicensed spectrum use in the 3.5GHz and 600MHz bands, the latter to be freed up by broadcasters under FCC incentives.

The initial order allows Wi-Fi equipment to target performance above 1Gbps in operation and as further chunks of spectrum are made available, it could one day double that.

There are a few important things to take away from this move. Firstly that the rest of the world will mostly follow. Wi-Fi spectrum is not unified, but there is a commitment across the globe for regulators to try their best to make it easy to export devices from one part of the world to another, with minimal adjustment. Where this has not yet been done in other parts of the world, it will follow.

Secondly the speed at which this came about shows that those lobbying in favor of Wi-Fi are strong, and the economic benefits of having lots of unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi and other technologies are measurable and good for any country issuing more.

Thirdly this sends a message to the cellular community that ‘the water is fine, come on in’. Efforts, led by Qualcomm, to demonstrate 4G in this same unlicensed spectrum is one way to go, squeezing Wi-Fi in its own space. However, if the cellular community were to do this, it would crush down the effectiveness of this new spectrum, by creating interference and by making investment in Wi-Fi less profitable.

This order from the FCC makes it clear that MNOs would be welcome to build out their own Wi-Fi, but then like all Wi-Fi, it needs to be for the benefit of everyone, not a single MNO customer base. The powerful Wi-Fi lobbying community would explode if 4G limited its options to a single MNO in any of the major western territories.