FCC will move to give more spectrum to Wi-Fi

The agency will act starting next month to accommodate more users and demand for video

The FCC plans to allocate more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi to improve performance in crowded public places and in homes, looking to head off a future spectrum crunch.

Wi-Fi users will share that spectrum with the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies, U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced on Wednesday at International CES in Las Vegas. The spectrum will be in the 5GHz band, one of the two bands where Wi-Fi is already used.

The commission will initiate a proceeding at its public meeting next month. There are interference issues to be addressed, but it's important to move quickly, Genachowski said.

"We're moving forward with it, and we're going to work out the problems as we go," Genachowski said. He announced the upcoming move during an onstage event at the show.

Wi-Fi is likely to face a shortage of spectrum that affects performance much like the shortage that Genachowski expects to see in the cellular arena, he said. The new spectrum allocation is intended to prevent that.

The agency will seek to add 195MHz of spectrum for Wi-Fi, increasing the available capacity by 35 percent, the agency said in a press release. The agency didn't immediately specify what frequencies would be added.

Wi-Fi operates over unlicensed spectrum, where anyone can set up networks as long as they comply with certain technical specifications. It has become a critical resource not just for consumers and operators of public venues but for mobile operators. The carriers are offering access to their own and partners' Wi-Fi networks to offload data traffic that might otherwise swamp their cellular base stations.

The FCC has proposed and set up other spectrum-sharing schemes and run into opposition from broadcasters, mobile operators and others who hold licensed frequencies. Genachowski said he's prepared for controversy over this proposal, too. However, the plan apparently won't affect any commercial spectrum users. The current Wi-Fi bands in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are not shared with any commercial user or government agency in the U.S.

Wi-Fi was introduced in 2001 as the brand name for a set of specifications based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards. Wi-Fi has proliferated partly because it uses frequencies that are available as unlicensed spectrum, with some variations, around the world. This allows manufacturers to use many common components for products sold all over the world, which has led to massive production volumes that have dramatically lowered the cost of Wi-Fi gear. In 2009, the Wi-Fi Alliance industry group announced that 1 billion Wi-Fi chipsets had shipped since 2001.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the new Wi-Fi spectrum in the U.S. would line up with frequencies available for the technology elsewhere.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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