With 5 GHz, Government Has Yet Another Opportunity to Free Up More Spectrum

Michi Iljazi

December 2, 2013

When it comes to having too much of something, the federal government is an expert. This year they’ve taken in a record haul in taxes, a report out early last Spring showed that they own massive amounts of unused land and properties, and they certainly have too much debt as far as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) (and probably most taxpayers) are concerned. Another thing that the federal government has far too much of is wireless spectrum. TPA has been a strong advocate of the government selling as much government held wireless spectrum as is possible without endangering any abilities of the federal, state, and local agencies to their job (read previous TPA blogs here and here). Currently, it is estimated that the amount of spectrum the government has is nearly 60% of what is available.  This statistic (and fact) is something that has been the subject of Congressional inquiries over the last several months, including a recent hearing just a few weeks ago focused on the 5 GHz spectrum and the opportunities for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make more available to consumers and businesses.

There are two brands of wireless spectrum, one is 2.4 GHz, the other is the 5 GHz. Rolf Nilsson, CEO connectBlue, discussed the differences between the two and highlighted what makes the 5 GHz stand apart from the 2.4 GHz:

“The greatest strength of the 5 GHz band is the availability of 23 non-overlapping channels; 20 more channels than what is available in the 2.4 GHz band. Since there is no other wireless technology that ‘fights’ for the radio space, the 23 available non-overlapping channels can provide a possibility for easier planning of an interference-free and stable wireless communication. Another advantage of the 5 GHz band is that the greater number of available channels provides for increased density, which means that more wireless devices can be connected in the same radio environment.”

The 5GHz is a band that is used for WiFi, and making more available could be extremely beneficial for all WiF users. Annika Boone, of Digital Liberty, summarized the key point on why allowing for the release of more 5 GHz spectrum would be a positive development:

“However, the 5 GHz band is perfect for Wi-Fi, which is supported by unlicensed spectrum. By opening portions of the band for unlicensed use, taxpayers would have access to gigabit Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi so fast that virtually no application would use it at full capacity yet. That opens up the possibility of the brightest future for mobile innovation the world has ever known. The benefits aren’t limited to the future; opening up more unlicensed spectrum would relieve congestion in the 2.4 GHz band and give consumers faster speeds instantly.”

On November 13, 2013 there was a hearing in the House Energy & Commerce’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing, “Challenges and Opportunities in the 5 GHz Spectrum Band.” Several industry and technology experts testified on the 5GHz spectrum and what the best way forward would be as the FCC debates this key aspect of their upcoming agenda. One witness, Tom Nagel Senior Vice President at Comcast pointed out some of the public benefits that his industry has already seen regarding the 5 GHz band and how his company was able to use this to expand upon the availability for WiFi for consumers at a time when it was needed most:

“Wi-Fi networks have also proven to be valuable during emergencies. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year and the attack of the Boston Marathon this year, licensed wireless networks were temporarily overloaded or down completely. In both cases, Comcast opened its Wi-Fi network to provide free access to anybody with a Wi-Fi enabled device so that people could receive urgent information and communicate with loved ones. All consumers with a Wi-Fi enabled device can use Wi-Fi, regardless of their wireless carrier. So it is a powerful and flexible tool in emergencies.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t roadblocks to consider. First, spectrum used in Wi-Fi today is extremely congested, specifically in densely populated regions. Second, the next generation of Wi-Fi (referred to as gigabit Wi-Fi) requires larger channels than are currently available and Gigabit Wi-Fi can only be done in the 5 GHz band. Taking these facts into consideration one can only come to the conclusion that it is imperative to make the band more available to overcome these challenges.

There will be more hearings on this issue in the coming months, and both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress appear ready to engage and play a role in making the release of more spectrum (both unlicensed and into the auction marketplace). Key players in the industry are equally eager to make this happen as fast and as responsible as possible so that all taxpayers can share in the benefits of increased spectrum. Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) summed up this sentiment perfectly:

“I think we all agree, this is a huge opportunity for the country for innovation and technology for new jobs, new devices, replacement of all our existing devices so we can communicate faster.”

The question that TPA always asks is who is better to develop this technology, a bloated inefficient government or the private sector that will put the technology to immediate use?  History has shown that technological advances come at lightning speed from the private sector while the government lags behind.  FCC officials must recognize that it is in the best interest of taxpayers and consumers to allow the private sector develop these technologies.

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