COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL
WI-FI IN THE 5 GHZ FAST LANE
THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
MARCH 7, 2014
Good morning. It is a treat to be here at the inaugural event for Wi-FiForward. Though
your coalition is young, I think your impact will be big. After all, just being here together at the
National Press Club is a terrific start. But an even more powerful statement comes from the
sheer diversity of your members. From retailers to equipment manufacturers, Internet companies
to chipmakers, software developers to public institutions, you represent so much of what is vital
in the modern economy.
So what force has the power to bring this diverse group together? The power of
unlicensed spectrum. And how powerful is it? Let me answer that by asking a single, simple
question: Did you use unlicensed spectrum today?
The odds are that you did. It might have been the shiny new tablet or laptop you used to
go online with Wi-Fi this morning. Or maybe it was the old cordless phone you dusted off to
make a quick call. It could have been the baby monitor you used overnight, or perhaps it was the
remote control you pressed to get out of the garage for your commute to work. It could have
been the traffic application you checked on your smartphone before hitting the road. And it
could have been the errand you ran at the store along the way, where RFID sensors help keep
what you want on shelves and what you need in stock.
Every day, in countless ways, our lives are dependent on wireless connectivity. In fact,
they are getting more dependent every day. Last year alone, we connected more than 500
million new mobile devices to the Internet.
All of this means that the demand for our airwaves is growing at a blistering pace.
Indeed, the need for more licensed spectrum—the airwaves that can be controlled by a single
wireless operator—has been widely recognized. In fact, this led Congress to direct the FCC to
hold a series of auctions for licensed airwaves that will take place over this year and the next.
But what is less well known is that demand for unlicensed spectrum—airwaves open to all under
some basic technical rules—is also growing. So the spectrum that powers Wi-Fi and a slew of
our daily activities and devices is also getting more congested.
So why does this matter?
First, the unlicensed economy represents economic growth. Residential Wi-Fi has been
estimated to contribute between $16-37 billion to our economy annually. To put that in
perspective, that is more than Americans spend on milk and bread each year, combined. But
even this understates the extraordinary power of unlicensed spectrum. Because more recent
economic studies that add up the broader impact of unlicensed spectrum on the economy
estimate its annual value at more than $140 billion. By any measure, that number is really, really
Second, the unlicensed economy represents innovation. The power of unlicensed is the
power to innovate. That’s because unlicensed airwaves are sandboxes for experimentation.
Already countless technologies that make our lives easier and more convenient each day—from
your garage door opener to your smartphone traffic application—were developed using
unlicensed spectrum. Keeping airwaves open and available for unlicensed experimentation
could yield a new world of gee-whiz devices and wireless services.
Third, the unlicensed economy represents Internet connectivity. Wi-Fi is an essential
onramp to the Internet. But more than that, nearly one-half of wireless data connections are now
offloaded onto unlicensed spectrum. This helps manage the flow of traffic on our licensed
airwaves. Most of this Wi-Fi traffic uses the 2.4 GHz band. But the 2.4 GHz band is the home
of countless other devices, including Bluetooth, wireless speakers, and video game consoles.
While this unlicensed spectrum continues to serve Wi-Fi well, it is getting mighty crowded.
So I think the FCC should do something about it.
Let’s start by leaving behind the tired notion that we face a choice between licensed and
unlicensed airwaves. Because good spectrum policy requires both. Moreover, I think this kind
of division is a simplistic relic from the past.
Just last week I had the privilege of being in Barcelona and being a part of the GSMA
Mobile World Congress. I was able to speak to representatives of the wireless industry from
across the globe. I got a good look at the future—and I saw wireless technologies that amaze.
Cars that warn you even before they break down. Wearables that monitor your health down to
the microsecond. Systems that monitor crops and predict problems with livestock. These
devices do not rely on a single spectrum band to function. Instead, they overcome spectral and
physical challenges by moving from frequency to frequency, sometimes on spectrum that is
licensed and sometimes on spectrum that is unlicensed.
So I think we should take a page from this future. We should move beyond old
dichotomies that pit licensed versus unlicensed spectrum. Because across the board we need to
choose efficiency over inefficiency and speed over congestion. Because we can take steps that
inspire innovation and meet the growing demand for wireless services—or we will fall behind.
And to help meet this demand for unlicensed services, we have a terrific near-term
opportunity in the 5 GHz band.
It was in February last year that the FCC began to consider new opportunities in the 5
GHz band. The 5 GHz band already has a lot of players and already gets a lot of use. In fact, the
Wi-Fi routers you may have in your home probably use part of the 5 GHz band, at 5.725-
5.825 GHz. But there is more potential here for unlicensed, so we decided to take a fresh look.
At the direction of Congress, and in conjunction with the National Telecommunication and
Information Administration, we specifically asked about the 5.35-5.47 GHz and 5.85-5.925 GHz
bands. But at the same time we also noted the possibilities of expanding Wi-Fi in the lower
portion of the 5 GHz band, namely 5.15-5.25 GHz. We pointed out that this could be done using
an existing Wi-Fi technical standard known as 802.11ac.
Now fast forward several months. In July of last year, our counterparts at the Department
of Defense penned an important letter about ongoing efforts to make the 1755-1780 MHz band
available for licensed service in an upcoming FCC auction. But in some ways, this letter buried
the lede. Because in it our federal colleagues noted that they do not need access to the 5.15-
5.25 GHz band for telemetry—and acknowledged it could be made available for Wi-Fi use.
We should seize this opportunity right now. We can take the flexible Wi-Fi rules that
have already been the script for an unlicensed success story in the 5.725-5.825 GHz band and
expand them to the 5.15-5.25 GHz band. If we do, we could effectively double unlicensed
bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight. That will mean more unlicensed service—and less
congestion on licensed wireless networks. That’s win-win.
But expanding unlicensed service in this band should not be the end of the story.
Because we can seize unlicensed opportunities across other spectrum bands, too. For instance,
we can explore the possibilities of using unlicensed bandwidth in the 3.5 GHz band. We also
should find lawful ways to use guard bands in the 600 MHz spectrum now used by broadcasters.
So if we get our unlicensed spectrum policies right, we can seriously expand Wi-Fi
opportunities. We can grow the future mobile economy. And we can give a jolt to the Internet
of Things and the innovative possibilities of machine-to-machine communications.
But above all, the time to act is now—and expanding unlicensed service in the 5 GHz
band at 5.15-5.25 GHz is a great place to start. Given the multiplying number of wireless
devices in our lives and the growing demand on our airwaves—licensed and unlicensed—now is
not a moment too soon. I think the members of Wi-FiForward know this. I think all of us who
used unlicensed spectrum today know this. And I, for one, can’t wait to make it happen.