FCC acts to relieve Wi-Fi network congestion

The FCC has taken steps to ease congestion in Wi-Fi networks across the country by proposing a rulemaking that would make available up to 195MHz of additional spectrum in the 5GHz band.

Cable operators and others that provide more than 100,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in the United States currently use the 5GHz band. The challenge to the FCC in freeing the spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi use is to not interfere with military, FAA and automotive collision-avoidance systems operating in the same band.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski told The New York Times after the vote that he is confident all 195MHz of the new spectrum will be freed up for the rising use of tablet computers, smartphones and other wireless devices.

The FCC’s action will increase the current Wi-Fi spectrum allocation in the band by 35 percent and streamline certification of Wi-Fi devices. The goal of the commission’s initiative is to decrease congestion in the Wi-Fi band, as well as boost speeds for users.

After a public comment period on the rulemaking, the FCC will issue final rules and regulations — a process that could take a year or more. However, all of the FCC members expressed hope that the new airwaves could be put to use without unnecessary delay.

There are a number of hurdles that must be overcome, however, because some of the spectrum proposed for the new Wi-Fi expansion is already in use by private organizations and government agencies, including the U.S. military, The New York Times reported.

Congress has mandated that the FCC undertake the expansion of unlicensed spectrum. The Obama administration has urged the freeing up or sharing of airwaves currently allocated to the federal government. However, various government agencies, including a division of the Commerce Department, have warned against allowing consumer uses of Wi-Fi to interfere with current applications.

The New York Times reported that Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant commerce secretary for communications and information, said in a letter to the FCC that the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and NASA use parts of the same airwaves for communication between aircraft and ground stations. Those communications, the newspaper reported, enable activities like drug interdiction, combat search and rescue and border surveillance.

While “it will require significant consultation with stakeholders” to avoid problems, Genachowski told the newspaper, “consultation can’t be an excuse for inaction or delay.”

The FCC also voted unanimously to approve a new regulation allowing the use approved and licensed boosters to amplify signals between wireless devices, like cell phones, and the wireless networks on which they operate. Those signal boosters, millions of which are currently used in ungoverned applications, help consumers and businesses improve coverage where cell signals are weak.

Boosters are also used by public safety departments to extend wireless access in tunnels, subways and garages. The order, which takes effect March 1, creates two classes of signal boosters, for use by consumers and businesses, each with distinct requirements to minimize interference with wireless networks.