Rosenworcel: FCC Must Promote All Spectrum Bands for Unlicensed Uses

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By Paul Barbagallo  

May 6 — The Federal Communications Commission must continue to craft policies that promote all spectrum bands—high, mid, and low—for unlicensed uses, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.

In remarks at an event sponsored by WifiForward, an industry group whose members include Google Inc. and Comcast Corp., Rosenworcel voiced strong support for what she described as an “unlicensed spectrum game plan”—new strategies that, in her view, “deserve attention up front, in policy prime time.”

“It should no longer be an afterthought in our spectrum policy,” she said.

Vote Looming on Incentive Auction Rules

Rosenworcel's latest remarks come less than two weeks before the FCC's May 15 meeting, where the agency will vote on rules that will govern the first-ever incentive auction of spectrum scheduled to take place in 2015.

At stake in the incentive auction is up to 120 megahertz (MHz) of coveted, 600 MHz low-band spectrum, which would be voluntarily given up by television broadcasters in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of an auction to mobile carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc.

‘A Lot to Balance.’

One sticking point is how much spectrum the FCC should ultimately set aside for unlicensed uses, like Wi-Fi, before auctioning off licenses to the carriers.

The majority of Republicans in the Senate and the House prefer that the FCC auction off—and license—as much spectrum as possible. In their view, selling the spectrum means a greater monetary return to the general treasury, as the carriers are willing to pay billions of dollars for licenses to new spectrum. In contrast, anyone can use unlicensed spectrum—for free.

On this issue, Rosenworcel noted that as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (Pub. L. No. 112-96), Congress granted the FCC the authority to reserve “technically reasonable guard bands” for such unlicensed uses.

“Under the law, we have to find ways to give both new and old uses access to these airwaves,” Rosenworcel said. “There is a lot to balance. So while finding several contiguous channels for unlicensed service may be difficult, I believe there are creative ways forward. For my part, I think that creativity starts with ditching the tired notion that we face a choice between licensed and unlicensed spectrum.”

“We need to discard the conceit that Wi-Fi comes only at the expense of others who wish to use the airwaves,” she added.

FCC Working Hard to Push Wi-Fi, but Must Do More

Once considered “junk-band” airwaves, unlicensed spectrum has enabled countless wireless devices and technologies, such as baby monitors, garage door openers, alarm systems, smart grid monitoring, and, most importantly, Wi-Fi. More than 20,000 different devices have been certified by the FCC for use in the Wi-Fi band, three times more than in any other frequency band. Mobile carriers also increasingly rely on unlicensed spectrum—specifically Wi-Fi—to offload traffic from their data networks.

Recently, the FCC has taken steps to make more unlicensed spectrum available.

In March, the agency voted to free up some 100 megahertz of so-called high-band spectrum in the 5.1 gigahertz band for use by outdoor Wi-Fi equipment, part of a broader plan to release more 5 GHz frequencies for shared Wi-Fi use over the next five years.

“Now going forward, I think we can develop even more high-band spectrum for unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band,” Rosenworcel said. “In fact, I think we can take the policies we are developing for managing exclusion zones for service in the 3.5 GHz band and use them as the blueprint for making more unlicensed spectrum available in the 5.350-5.470 GHz band.”

Agency Should Not Overlook Mid-Band Opportunities

As for mid-band spectrum, Rosenworcel said the FCC must continue to look for opportunities for unlicensed uses, particularly in frequencies that may be underutilized.

Wi-Fi networks now operate primarily at 2.4 GHz, a mid-band (and the birthplace of Wi-Fi) where signals travel farther but are more susceptible to interference from other public Wi-Fi hotspots (in coffee shops, airports, and parks) and common household appliances (like microwave ovens, garage-door openers, and baby monitors).

The band, Rosenworcel noted, is getting “mighty crowded.”

“More unlicensed spectrum means more Wi-Fi,” Rosenworcel said. “It means more innovation without license.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Barbagallo in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bob Emeritz at