COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL
MOVING WI-FI FORWARD
MAY 6, 2014
Thank you, Marty Cooper, for that kind introduction. For someone who works at the
Federal Communications Commission, being introduced by the father of the mobile phone is as
good as it gets. But actually it gets better. Because instead of being here to talk about wireless
developments decades ago, Marty Cooper is here to talk about the future—the future of
unlicensed spectrum. Needless to say, when the person responsible for wireless phones talks
about where the wireless world is headed, we should all pay attention!
For my part, I think the future of unlicensed spectrum is big. So I want to thank you for
having me here and thank Wi-Fi Forward for keeping the conversation about unlicensed
spectrum moving forward. Your coalition is young, but impressive. Because 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.
I want to talk today about the power and possibilities of unlicensed spectrum in the
future. But before heading off into the future, I think it’s instructive to talk about the present. In
fact, I think it’s useful to simply consider right here, right now—today. Because the odds are
pretty good that everyone here has used unlicensed airwaves today. It might have been the shiny
new tablet or laptop you used to go online with coffee and 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 the remote control you pressed in the morning to get out of the garage and
make your way to work. Or given rush hour, it could have been the traffic application you
checked out on your smartphone before hitting the road.
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 devices to the Internet. So it is no wonder that the demand for our airwaves is growing at a
breathtaking pace. Here in Washington, so much of the conversation about spectrum is about the
demand for licensed spectrum. In fact, the growing demand for licensed spectrum—airwaves
that can be controlled by a single wireless operator—has received a lot of legislative attention.
As a result, the FCC will hold a series of auctions for licensed spectrum this year and next.
But it is high time we give unlicensed spectrum—airwaves open to all under technical
rules—its due. Because it is an essential part of the wireless ecosystem, a critical part of wireless
service, and an important input into the modern economy. In fact, the economic impact of
unlicensed spectrum has been estimated at $140 billion annually. By any measure that is a lot.
So I think it is time for an unlicensed spectrum game plan. It should no longer be an
afterthought in our spectrum policy. It deserves attention upfront, in policy prime time.
So let me sketch out what an unlicensed game plan looks like. It takes high-band, mid-
band, and low-band spectrum. High-band spectrum provides the large channels necessary for
high-definition video at short distances—think streaming video from your laptop to your
television. Mid-band spectrum sacrifices some of that throughput, but gives you further reach.
Low-band spectrum can go far and wide, and as a result is ideal for larger-scale Wi-Fi
deployments and machine-to-machine communications. To build powerful wireless
communications systems, you need a playbook that includes all three.
Now with respect to high-band spectrum, I am proud to report that the FCC has made
terrific progress in the 5 GHz band. This band is widely-used for home Wi-Fi systems—it may
be in many of your homes right now. Just a few months ago, after a year of prodding and
pressing, the FCC voted unanimously to expand to the 5.150-5.250 GHz band the flexible rules
that have already made the 5.725-5.825 GHz band an unlicensed success story. That may sound
technical. But it is going to have real impact. Because it has effectively doubled unlicensed
bandwidth in the 5 GHz band overnight. That is really good news.
Now going forward, I think we can develop even more high-band spectrum for
unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band. In fact, I think we can take the policies we are developing for
managing exclusion zones for service in the 3.5 GHz band and use them as the blueprint for
making more unlicensed spectrum available in the 5.350-5.470 GHz band. So stay tuned.
Next, mid-band spectrum. Mid-band spectrum is the birthplace of Wi-Fi. And I think
history will show that it is the most successful experiment in wireless service since Marty
Cooper made his first mobile phone call. But the 2.4 GHz band, where unlicensed spectrum
makes its mid-band home, is getting mighty crowded. It’s a band where the Wi-Fi every one of
us uses is packed in along with Bluetooth, wireless speakers, and video game consoles. So we
need to be on the watch for new mid-band opportunities for unlicensed spectrum, especially in
airwaves that are underutilized.
Finally, we have low-band spectrum. That is what I want to talk to you most about today.
Because it is a place where opportunities—and challenges—involving unlicensed spectrum are
This year the FCC will develop policies for mobile broadband use in the 600 MHz band.
Now as low-band spectrum goes, the 600 MHz band is as good as it gets. These airwaves can
sound almost heroic—they can leap over tall buildings and go through walls like they are not
even there. They are pretty super, so it’s no wonder they draw so much attention.
The opportunity to make more use of the 600 MHz band for mobile broadband comes to
us straight from Congress, courtesy of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. Under
this law, the FCC will conduct the first-of-its-kind voluntary incentive auctions to repurpose 600
MHz broadcast airwaves for wireless broadband service. This is a big and complicated exercise.
But it also comes with real opportunity for growing unlicensed services. Because as part of this
law, Congress granted the FCC the authority to use technically reasonable guard bands to expand
unlicensed opportunities in the 600 MHz band.
Now making this happen will not be easy—but it’s worth the effort. Under the law we
have to find ways to give both new and old uses access to these airwaves. There is a lot to
balance. So while finding several contiguous channels for unlicensed service may be difficult, I
believe there are creative ways forward.
For my part, I think that creativity starts with ditching the tired notion that we face a
choice between licensed and unlicensed spectrum. This is a simplistic relic from the past that we
should have long since retired—because good spectrum policy requires both.
Moreover, we need to discard the conceit that Wi-Fi comes only at the expense of others
who wish to use the airwaves. Because new technologies like dynamic databases can allow
several services to co-exist harmoniously.
We also need to recognize that other services striving for white space in the 600 MHz
band—like wireless microphones, low power television, and medical telemetry—matter.
Wireless microphones are critical for newsgathering, key for Broadway productions and widely-
used in churches and schools. These microphones deserve a home. Low power television and
translators also play an important role in communities across the country—and can extend the
reach of television in rural areas. Plus, lives depend on medical telemetry. So these services
If we take these things as a given, I still think we can find solutions. Let’s be creative.
We can consider an expanded duplex gap, find new locations for unlicensed microphones, and
provide unlicensed opportunities in channel 37—while also protecting existing users. Moreover,
if we do this right, we can increase the value of licensed spectrum without diminishing the
number of licenses we sell at auction. In short, if we are creative, I think we can honor the
constraints in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, but also free up new unlicensed
opportunities in the 600 MHz band. That’s win-win.
Count me as excited. Because what is taking shape now is a real game plan for
unlicensed spectrum. We are thinking, all at once, about opportunities in high-band, mid-band,
and low-band spectrum. That is new. It used to be that unlicensed service was relegated to the
airwave equivalent of carpet remnants. But now, instead of having unlicensed interests
scrounging for scraps of frequencies no one else wants, we are at long last recognizing that
unlicensed spectrum needs a plan, deserves attention, and requires forward thinking.
This is progress—and it’s a good thing. Because unlicensed spectrum is a powerful force
in the economy. More unlicensed spectrum means more Wi-Fi. It means more innovation
without license. It means a real jolt to the Internet of Things and the innovative possibilities of
machine-to-machine communications. So now we have a game plan, let’s go make it happen.