Senate bill aims to expand Wi-Fi spectrum

The legislation directs the FCC to study whether to open up spectrum now designed for intelligent car communications

Two U.S. senators have introduced legislation aimed at expanding the amount of Wi-Fi spectrum available in a band now designated for intelligent vehicle communications, satellite service and amateur radio.

The legislation, announced Friday by Senators Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, would require the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to test the feasibility of opening the upper 5GHz band of spectrum to unlicensed Wi-Fi use.

The WiFi Innovation Act attempts to balance the needs of incumbent users of the 5850-5925MHz band, including growing use of so-called intelligent transportation systems, focused on vehicle safety and traffic information, with a major need for more Wi-Fi spectrum, the senators said in a statement. The bill encourages users of the band to share spectrum if possible, they said.

Smartphone and tablet users are increasingly using Wi-Fi instead of cellular networks to connect to the Internet, and the upper 5GHz band also holds the potential for delivering new broadband service to low-income communities, Booker said in a statement.

"There is a clear and growing demand for increased availability of spectrum," Booker said. "We want to see this valuable resource made available for further use by the public. Not only does access to wireless broadband open the door for innovation and transformative new technologies, it helps bridge the digital divide that leaves too many low-income communities removed from the evolving technology landscape and the growing economic opportunities."

The bill would create a study to examine the barriers to Wi-Fi deployment in low-income areas. It would require the FCC to evaluate incentives and policies that could increase the availability of unlicensed spectrum in low-income neighborhoods.

The bill addresses customer demands for mobile broadband, Rubio added. "To meet the demands of our time, action must be taken to ensure spectrum is utilized effectively and efficiently," he said in a statement. "This bill requires the FCC to conduct testing that would provide more spectrum to the public and ultimately put the resource to better use, while recognizing the future needs and important work being done in intelligent transportation."

With only weeks before the 2014 campaign season kicks into high gear, the bill is unlikely to pass during this session of Congress. The sponsors could reintroduce the bill during the new session of Congress beginning next January.

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a trade group, said it supports an effort to explore technical solutions that would allow Wi-Fi devices to operate in the 5.9GHz band "without interfering with these critical safety applications."

The process should happen without "arbitrary deadlines ... or political pressure that could influence the outcome," Scott Belcher, president and CEO of ITS America, said in a statement.

Mobile trade group CTIA, as well as tech trade groups the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Consumer Electronics Association, praised the bill, saying more Wi-Fi spectrum will help meet consumer demand for mobile broadband.

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 email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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