The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has taken the first step toward an expansion of the spectrum available for Wi-Fi, with the agency launching a rulemaking proceeding to open new parts of the 5GHz spectrum to unlicensed uses.
The FCC on Wednesday voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, to look at ways to use 195MHz of the 5GHz spectrum, now occupied by government agencies and other users, for unlicensed Wi-Fi services. The 195MHz would represent a 35 percent increase in the amount of U.S. 5GHz spectrum available for unlicensed devices.
The new spectrum could reduce congestion at Wi-Fi hotspots and allow speeds of up to 1 GBps, the FCC said. The FCC did not give a target date for the spectrum to be available for Wi-Fi.
The FCC, in an NPRM, proposes rules and asks for public comment.
With many mobile phone users off-loading data-intensive tasks to Wi-Fi, U.S Wi-Fi spectrum is getting crowded, particularly in heavily populated areas, commissioners said. Mobile users are now off-loading about 33 percent of traffic onto Wi-Fi networks, with that percentage expected to grow significantly, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
"Wi-Fi congestion is a very real and growing problem," Genachowski said. "Like licensed spectrum, demand for unlicensed spectrum threatens to outpace supply."
Demand for Wi-Fi spectrum will continue to grow "because it's increasingly common in homes to have multiple data-hungry devices," Genachowski added.
The U.S. now allows unlicensed devices to operate in parts of the 2.4GHz band and other parts of the 5GHz band.
Unlicensed devices now operate in 555 megahertz of spectrum in the 5GHz band, and are used for short-range, high-speed wireless connections including Wi-Fi-enabled local area networks and fixed outdoor broadband transceivers used by wireless Internet service providers to connect smartphones, tablets and laptops to the broadband network.
AT&T called the FCC's Wi-Fi NPRM a "step in the right direction." However, the agency's priority should be to clear and auction spectrum below 3GHz for licensed, commercial use, a spokeswoman said.
"Freeing up spectrum for unlicensed uses can also play an important role in more fully utilizing spectrum that is not ideal for mobile broadband use," she added. "We fully support efforts to explore new unlicensed technologies that can play an important role in driving incremental network efficiency."
In addition to the Wi-Fi action, the FCC voted to approve an order that sets the rules for mobile-phone signal boosters. Since 2007, some mobile carriers had raised concerns that some signal boosters cause interference to their networks and to public safety communications.
Mobile customers have purchased "literally millions" of signal boosters to improve signals and coverage, Commissioner Ajit Pai said. "It's too late for us to put the genie back in the bottle," he said.
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