Wi-Fi Is About to Get Faster

The FCC freed up more airwaves for wireless networks.

National Journal
March 31, 2014, 7:46 a.m.

It will soon be easi­er to stream videos and browse the Web on Wi-Fi net­works.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion voted un­an­im­ously Monday to set aside more air­waves for Wi-Fi, a move that will ease con­ges­tion and boost speeds for smart­phones and laptops.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er de­scribed the agency’s ac­tion as “spin­ning straw in­to gold.”

“This opens all kinds of new op­por­tun­it­ies for en­tre­pren­eurs and in­nov­at­ors as well as re­liev­ing con­ges­tion,” Wheel­er said. “Faster con­nec­tions, less con­ges­tion all make it easi­er to get on­line.”

Ex­plod­ing wire­less In­ter­net traffic has clogged Wi-Fi net­works in re­cent years and made it dif­fi­cult for people to con­nect to the In­ter­net, es­pe­cially in crowded areas like con­ven­tion cen­ters and air­ports.

Un­der the FCC’s or­der, Wi-Fi routers will have ac­cess to an ad­di­tion­al 100 mega­hertz of spec­trum — the ra­dio fre­quen­cies that carry all wire­less sig­nals. The spec­trum, which is in the 5 giga­hertz band, was be­ing used by the satel­lite phone pro­vider Glob­al­star, but the com­pany agreed to the new rules after the FCC set in­ter­fer­ence stand­ards.

“While that sounds tech­nic­al, this change will have real im­pact,” said Demo­crat­ic FCC Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel.

“For starters, if you like Wi-Fi, that is a lot more. Cheers for that. But the power of un­li­censed goes bey­ond on ramps to the In­ter­net and of­f­load­ing for li­censed ser­vices. It is the power of set­ting aside more of our air­waves for ex­per­i­ment and in­nov­a­tion without li­cense. It is bound to yield new and ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments. It is also bound to be an eco­nom­ic boon.”

Un­li­censed spec­trum can be used by any com­pany for free and powers a vari­ety of tech­no­lo­gies such as baby mon­it­ors and re­mote con­trols. But Wi-Fi ac­counts for the vast ma­jor­ity of traffic that travels over un­li­censed spec­trum and was what spurred the FCC to en­act the new rules.

The FCC’s ac­tion will not help ser­vices like cel­lu­lar net­works that rely on li­censes for ex­clus­ive use of spec­trum. The FCC of­fi­cials said they ex­pect the de­mand for un­li­censed spec­trum to con­tin­ue to ex­plode in the com­ing years as more every­day devices like re­fri­ger­at­ors and ther­mo­stats con­nect to the In­ter­net.

The new rules will be fi­nal­ized once they are pub­lished in the Fed­er­al Re­gister. Device-makers will then be able to start design­ing Wi-Fi routers to use the new fre­quen­cies.

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