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Today Public Knowledge celebrates World Wi-Fi Day and the pioneering spectrum management policies that make this technology possible. World Wi-Fi Day is an international initiative organized by the Wireless Broadband Alliance under the leadership of the Connected City Advisory Board to help bridge the digital divide by using Wi-Fi technology to connect the unconnected. The day serves as a reminder that an estimated four billion people worldwide currently don’t have access to the internet and the benefits that connectivity can provide. These include not only economic benefits but the educational, employment, and social opportunities that connection can bring to individuals around the world.
Wi-Fi owes its existence in large part to the experimental spectrum policy adopted by the Federal Communications Commission almost 30 years ago. In 1985, the FCC created the first unlicensed spectrum allocations when it set aside parts of the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz bands of spectrum for use under new, innovative rules. As long as devices followed the rules outlined by the FCC, they could use the spectrum in these bands, meaning new wireless technology could be created without first having to obtain an expensive spectrum license. This forward-looking decision allowed for the growth of new technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi that are now an integral part of our everyday lives.
Examples of Wi-Fi driven technology are all around us. Wi-Fi powers everything from the wireless internet connection for your laptop to RFID technology that enables smart card payment options and can even help keep track of your keys. Internet of Things devices also rely on Wi-Fi technology to bring new levels of convenience to our lives. Wi-Fi is not only a boon for consumers, unlicensed spectrum uses like Wi-Fi provide more than $220 billion to the domestic economy annually.
The success of Wi-Fi demonstrates the importance of the FCC continuing to allocate spectrum for unlicensed uses. This past April, the FCC concluded the first ever wireless incentive auction whereby total auction revenues of $19.8 billion were generated and 14 MHz of spectrum were allocated for unlicensed use. But it’s important that as wireless technology demand grows, responsible spectrum management policies protect unlicensed uses across the bands. Because different waves have different physical characteristics, and therefore different propagation characteristics, promoting unlicensed uses at different frequencies allows the greatest opportunity for a wide range of wireless technologies to develop.
Growing technological capability coupled with rising demand has led to pioneering uses for spectrum at the edges of the bands. As the wireless industry prepares to deploy 5G networks and looks to higher frequencies, it’s important for the FCC to preserve unlicensed spectrum in the upper bands. Last year the FCC did just that in the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding when it set aside a new unlicensed band at 64-71 GHz.
Exclusive unlicensed bands aren’t the only solution for ensuring that unlicensed technology gets access to the spectrum that it needs to work. The FCC is exploring a different kind of experimental allocation by instituting spectrum sharing. The allocation in the 3.5GHz band for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service is a three-tiered sharing regime, the first of its kind. This system allows for sharing between incumbent technology (primarily federal government radar systems), priority access licensees, and license-by-rule that extended permission to use the band when other users are not, maximizing efficient use of this scarce resource.
The 3.5 GHz band is not the only band where sharing arrangements between licensed and unlicensed devices could lead to more efficient use of the spectrum. The 5.9GHz band was allocated for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) technology in automobiles almost 20 years ago, yet this technology still hasn’t been widely commercialized. In order to make more efficient use of spectrum, Public Knowledge and others have worked to advance the goal of sharing this spectrum, enabling faster unlicensed technologies while protecting road safety users.
Taken together these unlicensed allocations in the upper, mid, and low frequencies provide the greatest opportunity for the new and innovative wireless technologies to develop. We need to continue balanced spectrum management policies that preserve spectrum for unlicensed uses even as demand for wireless technology soars in order that 30 years from today we can continue to celebrate new, innovative wireless technologies.