FCC Puts Forward Plan To Ease Wi-Fi Congestion


The Federal Communications Commission yesterday took its first concrete steps towards heading off the so-called “data spectrum crunch”, announcing plans to free up more wireless bandwidth to ease congestion in hotels, airports and cities, and hopefully boost Wi-Fi speeds.

The five-member FCC yesterday announced the approval of a plan to release an additional 195Mhz of wireless spectrum within the 5Ghz band specifically for use by unlicensed Wi-Fi networks. This represents a sizeable 35% increase in the total amount of unlicensed spectrum available in the US – the largest such increase in almost ten years.

In addition, the FCC has also drawn up rules governing the way in which devices can use this upper 5GHz spectrum band.

The upshot of this announcement is that eventually, consumers should be able to see a marked difference with faster uploads and downloads in public Wi-Fi spots. The extra capacity should also help to relieve the burden on major hubs in hotels, airports, convention centers and other places where large numbers of Wi-Fi users mass.

It may be some time before the FCC can put its plan into action however – the 5GHz band it intends to free up is currently reserved for Federal users such as the emergency services, and so the commission will have to come to an arrangement with agencies on how to share this bandwidth.

To begin with, the FCC’s proposal is now open for public comments. Once these have been reviewed, the commission will set about creating a final proposal on how the new data spectrum should be used, before this is put to a vote. Only then can the FCC begin to implement its plan.

The FCC has been under pressure for some years to come up with a plan to head off the bandwidth crunch and free up more spectrum for Wi-Fi use. A recent report by UK consulting firm Deloitte warned that unless action is taken soon, the US could well see the emergence of “mobile rush hours” as early as 2016, characterized by slow browsing speeds, frozen web pages, an increase in the number of dropped calls and the inability to connect.

Several approaches have been suggested to prevent this from happening. The FCC is currently working on a simultaneous plan to auction off lower frequency spectrum that has voluntarily been given up by broadcasters to ease Wi-Fi congestion. Meanwhile, the commission is also trying to re-designate spectrum assigned to satellites so that this can also be used by Wi-Fi services.

A more ambitious proposal concerns the creation of so-called Super Wi-Fi networks that can travel across hills and through concrete walls, bringing lightning fast connections to every corner of the US. However, this plan is likely to be some years off – if it’s even possible – and would almost certainly meet stiff opposition from carriers.

Not everyone agrees with the FCC’s current plan to free up available spectrum for unlicensed use though. Some lawmakers have pressed for the commission to auction off additional spectrum instead, in order to generate funds that could be used to replenish budget deficits. But the FCC’s Ajit Pai has stated his opposition to this idea, saying:

“Flexible unlicensed spectrum use was one of this country’s great innovations in the 1980s… The Commission expanded several so-called junk bands to permit additional unlicensed uses and streamlined the Part 15 rules accordingly. Unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands is now some of the most valuable spectrum in the world for broadband. And consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries of unlicensed-use technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.”