Federal regulators yesterday voted unanimously to initiate a proceeding that could substantially increase the capacity of free, public Wi-Fi networks, boosting speeds and easing congestion in mobile broadband hotspots such as airports and convention centers.
The notice of proposed rulemaking approved by the Federal Communications Commission could free up as much as 195 MHz of unlicensed spectrum to come online, amounting to a 35 percent increase in Wi-Fi capacity, what commission officials described as the largest single addition since 2003.
"Wi-Fi congestion is a very real and growing problem. We see it in our daily lives," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the commission's monthly meeting. "This proceeding is about nurturing existing Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi as we know it. We all know how much value it's adding every day to our lives and the economy. We know that we are facing spectrum congestion issues when it comes to Wi-Fi, and so we know that we have to do something about it."
In addition to the Wi-Fi rulemaking proceeding, the FCC also approved an order establishing new rules for consumer and industrial wireless signal boosters, aiming to enhance coverage in rural areas and urban environments, such as a subway system, while safeguarding against interference to other traffic on the network.
The FCC has secured commitments from the four nationwide wireless providers along with numerous local and regional carriers to permit the use of signal boosters that adhere to the new rules on their networks.
"This report and order represents a significant step forward in the commission's efforts to promote deployment of mobile voice and broadband services, especially in areas with little or no wireless coverage," said Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.
The FCC's action on the Wi-Fi rulemaking comes in response to the surging use of smartphones, tablets and other data-hungry wireless devices that have been taxing wireless networks, prompting providers increasingly to offload their traffic onto Wi-Fi systems. In a study published last September, networking giant Cisco projected that mobile traffic would spike 26-fold from 2010 through 2015, three times the rate of increase forecasted for fixed IP networks.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called Wi-Fi a "critical pathway for Internet connectivity," and emphasized the importance of freeing up spectrum in the 5 MHz band to relieve the strain on current networks operating in the 2.4 GHz band.
"Although the 2.4 GHz band continues to serve us well, it is growing mighty crowded," she said.
Since taking the reins at the FCC in 2009, Chairman Genachowski has made mobile broadband a signature priority at the commission. In the time since, the agency has taken numerous actions to free up more spectrum to build out the capacity of wireless networks. Most significantly, the FCC has begun to draft the rules for a series of auctions that will reallocate spectrum from TV broadcasters to wireless carriers.
The same bill that authorized the FCC to conduct the so-called incentive auctions also directed the agency to expand the availability and use of unlicensed spectrum, which advocates say is an essential test bed for novel technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
"Good spectrum requires both licensed and unlicensed services across multiple spectrum bands," Rosenworcel said.
Wednesday's action marks the first formal step in what could be a lengthy process of expanding Wi-Fi availability. Much of the spectrum in question is currently occupied by agencies of the federal government, which means that the FCC will have to coordinate with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ensure that new unlicensed Wi-Fi networks don't interfere with drones or other federal applications that operate in the spectrum band.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.