FCC Opens Proceeding to Explore Release of Additional Spectrum in 5 GHz Band for Use in “Gigabit” Wi-Fi Networks

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

On Feb. 20, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and initiated a proceeding to release 195 megahertz of additional spectrum for potential use by unlicensed devices in the 5 GHz band. The Commission’s proposal is one part of a federal policy initiative to promote the deployment of wireless broadband facilities and services. At the same time, it also moves to the forefront issues regarding the viability of spectrum sharing techniques intended to unleash spectrum currently reserved for federal users as well as potential conflicts with uses that have been in development for related spectrum. Ultimately, the NPRM is one of several initiatives, such as the TV “White Spaces” proceeding, that reflect the federal government’s recognition of the increasingly important role of Wi-Fi networks in accelerating the deployment and ubiquity of higher-speed and higher-capacity broadband services.

Spectrum Targeted for Potential Deployment of Gigabit Wi-Fi Networks
Acting, in part, to relieve concerns over growing congestion of Wi-Fi networks operating in the 2.4 GHz band, the NPRM proposes to release spectrum suitable for ultra-high-speed, high-capacity Wi-Fi, known as “Gigabit” Wi-Fi, operating under the new IEEE 802.11ac standard. The Commission’s action also stems from a Congressional mandate in the 2012 Spectrum Act to consider allowing for greater use of unlicensed devices in the 5 GHz band. Once completed, this proceeding could release the largest block of spectrum dedicated to Wi-Fi in over ten years, representing a 35% increase in existing capacity.

The NPRM proposes to permit the use of “Unlicensed-National Information Infrastructure” devices (known as U-NII devices), which currently use 555 megahertz of spectrum in the 5 GHz Band, to operate in an additional 195 megahertz of spectrum in that Band. In addition, the item proposes to streamline its rules and equipment authorization rules for all such devices which use portions of the 5 GHz band.

FCC Chairman Genachowski predicted that this additional spectrum will enhance capacity on existing Wi-Fi networks and facilitate higher data speeds necessary to support enhanced services, such as improved HD video distribution. Many believe this effort will boost the utility and capabilities of cable and telecom Wi-Fi networks, and increase demand for unlicensed wireless devices and equipment.

Successful Development of Spectrum Sharing Techniques Key to Utilization of Spectrum
The NPRM is only a first step, and release of this spectrum will not occur anytime soon. The agency’s proposed action is complicated by the fact that much of the 5 GHz band is already used for various purposes by federal and non-federal users. Therefore, successful release of this spectrum will require extensive consultation with incumbent users and the development of a framework that allows multiple users to share the spectrum without interfering with existing users.

To that end, the NTIA released a report on Jan. 25, 2013, identifying various federal users of this spectrum, including federal government radar systems, unmanned aircraft systems, and command links for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Although the NTIA identified a number of risks to federal government systems if unlicensed devices are permitted to share this spectrum, it pledged to study potential mitigation techniques to address such risks. In addition, non-federal users also use this spectrum for operations in the intelligent transportation system radio service, for example, for use in so-called “smart car” technologies that have been in development for several years. For these reasons, the FCC must work with the NTIA to ensure that incumbent government licensee operations will be protected by technical solutions, including spectrum sharing technologies. In the NPRM, the FCC seeks comments on the NTIA 5GHz Report, and particularly the spectrum sharing technologies and risks current users identified in the NTIA Report.

The outcome of those discussions is likely to play a significant role in determining whether, or more likely how, this additional spectrum will, in fact, be released for use in the deployment of Gigabit Wi-Fi networks.

The FCC requests comments on such spectrum sharing solutions, as well as its proposals to unify rules for these devices. Comments are due forty-five days after publication in the Federal Register. If you have questions about this proceeding please contact us at your convenience.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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