Decisions about who gets to use the public airwaves and how they use it impact our lives every day. From the creation of WiFi routers to the public auctions that gave us more than two options for our cell phone providers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s decisions reshape our technological world. And they’re about to make another one.
In managing the public spectrum, aka “the airwaves,” the FCC has a responsibility to ensure that commercial uses benefit the American public. Traditionally, the FCC either assigns spectrum to certain entities with specific use conditions (for example, television, radio, and broadband are “licensed uses”) or simply designating a portion of spectrum as an open field with no specific use in mind called “unlicensed spectrum,” which is what WiFi routers use.
The FCC is about to make two incredibly important spectrum decisions. The first we’ve written about previously, but, in short, the FCC intends to reallocate spectrum currently used for satellite television to broadband providers through a public auction. The second is reassigning spectrum located in the 5.9 Ghz frequency band from being exclusively licensed to the auto industry to being an open, unlicensed use.
We support this FCC decision because unlicensed spectrum allows innovators big and small to make use of a public asset without paying license fees or obtaining advance government permission. Users gain improved wireless services, more competition, and more services making the most of an asset that belongs to all of us.
Why Is 5.9 GHz Licensed to the Auto Industry?
In 1999, the FCC allocated a portion of the public airwaves to a new type of car safety technology using Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). In theory, cars equipped with DSRC devices on the 5.9 GHz band would communicate with each other and coordinate to avoid collisions. 20 years later, very few cars actually use DSRC. In fact, so few cars are using it that a study found that its current automotive use is worth about $6.2 million, while opening up the spectrum would be worth tens of billions of dollars. In other words, a public asset that could be used for next generation WiFi is effectively laying fallow until the FCC changes part of the license held by the auto industry into an unlicensed use.
Even though it’s barely using it, what are the chances the auto industry will give up exclusive access to a multi-billion public asset it gets for free? This is why last ditch efforts to argue that the auto industry must maintain exclusive use over a huge amount of spectrum as a matter of public safety is hollow. Nothing the FCC is doing here is preventing cars from using this spectrum, and given that its high-frequency a lot of data can travel over the airwave in question.
It isn’t the FCC’s job to stand idly by while someone essentially squats on public property and let it go to waste. Rather, the FCC’s job is to continually evaluate who is given special permission by the government and to decide if they are producing the most benefit to the public.
Unlicensing 5.9 GHz Means Faster WiFi, Improved Broadband Competition, and Better Wireless Service
Spectrum is necessary for transmitting data, and more of it means more available bandwidth. WiFi routers today have a bandwidth speed limit because you can only move as much data as you have spectrum available. In addition, the frequency range affects how much data you can move as well. So earlier WiFi routers that used 2.5 GHz generally transmitted 100s of megabits per second while today’s routers also use 5.0 GHz to deliver gigabit speeds. More spectrum in the range of 5.9 GHz with similar properties to current gigabit routers will mean the next line of WiFi routers will be able to transmit even greater amounts of data.
Adding more high-capacity spectrum into the unlicensed space also means that smaller competitive wireless ISPs that compete with incumbents will be given more capacity for free. Typically small wireless ISPs (WISPs) are reliant on unlicensed spectrum because they do not have the multi-billion dollar financing that AT&T and Sprint do to purchase exclusive licenses. Their lack of financing also limits their ability to immediately deploy fiber wires to the home and unlicensed spectrum allows them to bypass the infrastructure costs until they have enough customers to fund fiber infrastructure. In essence, improving the competitiveness of small wireless players is an essential part of eventually reaching a fiber for all future because smaller competitive ISPs are also more aggressive in deploying fiber to the home than incumbent big telecommunications companies that have generally abandoned their buildouts.
Lastly, wireless broadband service in general will improve because unlicensed spectrum has dramatically reduced congestion on cell towers by offloading traffic to WiFi hotspots and routers. This offloading process is so pervasive that, these days, 59 percent of our smartphone traffic is over WiFi instead of over 4G. It’s estimated that 71 percent of 5G traffic will actually be over WiFi in its early years. Adding more capacity to offloading and higher speeds will mean less congestion on public and small business guest WiFi as well.
As it stands, the 5.9 GHz band of the public airwaves is barely serving the public at all. The FCC deciding to open it up has only benefits and is a good idea.