On April 1, the FCC took steps to remedy a small but growing annoyance of modern life:  poor Wi-Fi connectivity.  Removing restrictions that had been in place to protect the mobile satellite service uplinks of Globalstar, and by unanimous vote, the FCC’s First Report and Order on U-NII will free devices for both (i) outdoor operations; and (ii) operation at higher power levels in the 5.15 – 5.25 GHz band (also called the U-NII-1 band).[1]  The Report and Order also requires manufacturers to take steps to prevent unauthorized software changes to equipment in the U-NII bands, as well as to impose measures protecting weather and other radar systems in the band.

The practical impact of these rule changes is difficult to overstate.  By removing the operating restrictions in the U-NII-1 band, the FCC essentially doubled the amount of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band available to consumers.  In the near future, use of this spectrum will help to alleviate congestion on existing Wi-Fi networks, especially outdoor “hotspots” typically used at large public places like airports, stadiums, hotels and convention centers.  Two less-obvious, longer-term benefits also are worth watching.

First, the new IEEE 802.11ac standard for Wi-Fi was finalized in January 2014.  This next generation Wi-Fi standard is capable of delivering vast increases in raw throughput capacity to end-users, often approaching the holy grail of transfer speeds: 1 gigabit.  To achieve those speeds, wide channels of operation are required – channels that simply were not available to Wi-Fi devices.  Now that the U-NII-1 band has been unleashed for Wi-Fi usage, there should be little impediment to the near-term rollout of 802.11ac compatible devices.

This new standard will offer marked improvements in download speeds and streaming quality and be a boon to consumers who increasingly rely on mobile devices for bandwidth intensive applications such as HD video.  Unsurprisingly, cable operators in particular are excited by the possibilities of this technology; on the day the Report and Order was released, Comcast Chief Technology Officer Tony Werner authored a lengthy blog post touting the possibilities of Comcast offering Gigabit Wi-Fi to its customers utilizing the U-NII-1 band.[2]

Second, in addition to the enthusiasm of the MSOs, wireless carriers also have a stake in this unlicensed spectrum.  Specifically, as use of licensed mobile spectrum continues to expand exponentially, the wireless carriers will increasingly encourage wireless offloading as a means of addressing congestion and capacity issues on macro cellular networks.  For example, Cisco Systems estimates that 45% of global mobile data traffic was offloaded onto the fixed network through Wi-Fi or small cells in 2013.[3]

This transformation of 100 MHz of spectrum in the U-NII-1 band marks one part of a renewed focus on consumer broadband at the FCC.  In addition to unlicensed Wi-Fi, the FCC is also in the middle of a proceeding – covered in an earlier FCC Law Blog post[4] – to streamline rules for wireless infrastructure.  Taken together with the FCC’s release earlier the same week of auction rules for 65 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum later this year, it becomes clear that although it is early yet, the Wheeler Commission seems to be gaga for gigabit broadband.

For more information about the FCC’s rules regarding unlicensed spectrum, please contact Sheppard Mullin’s Communications attorneys.

[1] U-NII is the acronym for “Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure devices”, unintentional radiators which facilitate broadband access and wireless local area networking, including Wi-Fi.  A copy of the First Report and Order is available here.

[2] See Tony Werner’s blog post here.

[3] See Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2013-2018.

[4] See Sleeper “Small” Cells: The Battle Over The FCC’s Wireless Infrastructure Proceeding.