By Alex Roytblat
July 16, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Last year confirmed what many have suspected for some time: Broadband connectivity is not a luxury but a necessity. When COVID-19 sent America into lockdown, broadband kept us connected, kept us working, kept us learning, kept us entertained and kept us going. And Wi-Fi played an extraordinary role in delivering this broadband connectivity. Even pre-pandemic, Wi-Fi carried the vast share of internet traffic, which has increased dramatically with ever-growing demand for data and connected devices. In our new normal, Americans count on Wi-Fi as an integral component of the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and an essential piece of broadband connectivity.
As with any wireless technology, Wi-Fi functionality depends on access to radio frequencies, also known as spectrum. Higher data rates and volumes, combined with an increasing number of simultaneously active Wi-Fi devices, can exhaust spectrum capacity. This can lead to degradation in broadband connectivity, particularly in high-density user environments like schools, hospitals and even apartment buildings. Fortunately, the U.S. spectrum regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, recognized this problem and quickly moved to address it. At the end of last year, by a unanimous bipartisan vote, the FCC adopted the decision to modernize a swath of 5.9 GHz spectrum by making it available for Wi-Fi access. Under this decision, Wi-Fi gained access to the much needed additional 45 MHz without impacting existing spectrum users.
Importantly, the FCC decision enabled rapid deployment of the latest Wi-Fi technology – Wi-Fi 6. This new generation of Wi-Fi provides the foundation for a host of current and emerging uses, from video streaming to mission-critical business and learning applications requiring high bandwidth and low latency, and will keep users connected and productive even while traversing large, congested networks in airports, stadiums, convention centers and train stations. The FCC’s decision also sustained Wi-Fi’s ability to deliver significant economic benefits. A recent economic analysis confirmed that Wi-Fi access to this spectrum will generate over $23 billion in terms of contribution to gross domestic product and over $5 billion in consumer surplus between 2020 and 2025.
But despite these significant benefits of the FCC decision, some continue to oppose it, questioning Wi-Fi spectrum requirements and advocating for the decision to be reversed. These opponents fail to recognize that spectrum is a precious natural resource that is managed by the FCC in the public interest, and rarely has there been a more clearly identifiable public interest benefit. The choice is starkly obvious – provide more capacity to a technology that has unlocked revolutionary innovation, wireless connectivity and economic growth or continue to reserve this spectrum for technologies that have not lived up to their promises.
Now is not the time to relitigate the FCC bipartisan decision on the 5.9 GHz band. Doing so sets us back 20 years and prevents us from connecting more Americans to better, faster broadband. The FCC should stay the course and maintain its decision in the 5.9 GHz band.
Alex Roytblat is vice president of worldwide regulatory affairs at the Wi-Fi Alliance, where he is responsible for the organization’s overall regulatory strategy.
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