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FCC eyes Wi-Fi expansion, approves mobile signal boosting rules

New unlicensed spectrum is needed to keep up with growing demand for Wi-Fi, the agency says

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has taken the first step toward an expansion of the spectrum available for Wi-Fi, with the agency launching a rulemaking proceeding to open new parts of the 5GHz spectrum to unlicensed uses.

The FCC on Wednesday voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, to look at ways to use 195MHz of the 5GHz spectrum, now occupied by government agencies and other users, for unlicensed Wi-Fi services. The 195MHz would represent a 35 percent increase in the amount of U.S. 5GHz spectrum available for unlicensed devices.

The new spectrum could reduce congestion at Wi-Fi hotspots and allow speeds of up to 1 GBps, the FCC said. The FCC did not give a target date for the spectrum to be available for Wi-Fi.

The FCC, in an NPRM, proposes rules and asks for public comment.

With many mobile phone users off-loading data-intensive tasks to Wi-Fi, U.S Wi-Fi spectrum is getting crowded, particularly in heavily populated areas, commissioners said. Mobile users are now off-loading about 33 percent of traffic onto Wi-Fi networks, with that percentage expected to grow significantly, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

"Wi-Fi congestion is a very real and growing problem," Genachowski said. "Like licensed spectrum, demand for unlicensed spectrum threatens to outpace supply."

Demand for Wi-Fi spectrum will continue to grow "because it's increasingly common in homes to have multiple data-hungry devices," Genachowski added.

The U.S. now allows unlicensed devices to operate in parts of the 2.4GHz band and other parts of the 5GHz band.

Unlicensed devices now operate in 555 megahertz of spectrum in the 5GHz band, and are used for short-range, high-speed wireless connections including Wi-Fi-enabled local area networks and fixed outdoor broadband transceivers used by wireless Internet service providers to connect smartphones, tablets and laptops to the broadband network.

AT&T called the FCC's Wi-Fi NPRM a "step in the right direction." However, the agency's priority should be to clear and auction spectrum below 3GHz for licensed, commercial use, a spokeswoman said.

"Freeing up spectrum for unlicensed uses can also play an important role in more fully utilizing spectrum that is not ideal for mobile broadband use," she added. "We fully support efforts to explore new unlicensed technologies that can play an important role in driving incremental network efficiency."

In addition to the Wi-Fi action, the FCC voted to approve an order that sets the rules for mobile-phone signal boosters. Since 2007, some mobile carriers had raised concerns that some signal boosters cause interference to their networks and to public safety communications.

Mobile customers have purchased "literally millions" of signal boosters to improve signals and coverage, Commissioner Ajit Pai said. "It's too late for us to put the genie back in the bottle," he said.

The new rules allow carriers to veto the use of some signal boosters, raising the concern of some digital rights groups.

Pai called on carriers to act in a "consumer-friendly manner." Some carriers may give blanket consent to all signal boosters that comply with FCC rules, and others may issue approvals for each model, he said.

The rules will require booster buyers to register the devices before deploying them, but carriers shouldn't require buyers to get individual approval to set up a signal booster, Pai added. "Such a process would be inefficient for carriers and unnecessarily burdensome for consumers," he said.

The FCC order also sets up rules for industrial signal boosters designed to cover large areas such as stadiums, airports and tunnels. Industrial signal boosters will continue to fall under the existing authorization process, and must be installed and operated in coordination with licensees.

Wilson Electronics, a manufacturer of signal boosters, applauded the FCC rules.

The rules will "eliminate poorly designed products that currently plague the market, and have been a source of cell site interference," Joe Banos, Wilson's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "Today's outcome is a major victory not only for our industry, but also for the end users who benefit from added levels of safety, security and satisfaction with their service through the use of signal boosters."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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