By Kate Tummarello
February 12, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
You’re probably using unlicensed spectrum to read this right now, and it’s just one of the many times you’ll rely on unlicensed spectrum today.
These shared airwaves — and the Wi-Fi networks and devices that run on them — add hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy and have helped create an open, level playing field for startups like the ones Engine works with. Unlike licensed spectrum, which comes at a high cost and is typically only held by large incumbents that can afford to pay for it, unlicensed spectrum has a much lower barrier to entry, making it particularly useful for new and small startups. It also fuels the Wi-Fi networks and short-range wireless connectivity that everyone from online video streaming platforms, to file-sharing apps, to connected-device manufacturers depend on.
But we haven’t had new unlicensed spectrum since the invention of the iPhone. Fortunately, a bipartisan group at the Federal Communications Commission and in Congress want to change that, and the best path forward is clear. Currently, a lot of Wi-Fi traffic moves through the 5.8 GHz band, which is open for unlicensed use. Right next to that, in the 5.9 GHz band, is spectrum that isn’t currently being used to its full potential, and the FCC has started making moves to open up some of that spectrum for unlicensed use as well. Having those two adjacent bands would create wider channels of 80 to 160 MHz, which could result in faster speeds and capacity increases of tenfold or more.
The potential for faster speeds and higher capacity would be even greater if the FCC can open up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, creating a Wi-Fi superhighway. Perhaps most importantly for innovators here in the United States, the 6 GHz band is a blank canvas. This is a spectrum block that can accommodate seven 160 MHz channels. These wide channels are required for high-bandwidth applications like augmented reality, virtual reality and 4K video. But this band would be an unrestrained sandbox, with no legacy devices or standards for innovators to contend with. As long as they play by the FCC’s light rules, there are no limits on the products and services they can design.
Talking about the 6 GHz band last month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said we’re in the “Stone Age of Wi-Fi.” He went on to say that opening up the 6 GHz band could unleash opportunities we haven’t even thought of yet.
And time is of the essence. Industry and the FCC will establish rules so that 6 GHz band incumbents like electrical grid operations will coexist with new unlicensed users. But some have asked the FCC to split this valuable band, making only a small portion available for unlicensed use. This would greatly limit the positive impact this band could have. Making simple rules that free up many wide channels of airwaves is what will drive startup innovation in consumer technology, video streaming, connected devices, and more. All that splitting up the band would do is delay U.S. innovation.
Unlicensed spectrum is an invaluable asset for the thriving startup ecosystem in the United States, and the 6 GHz band will be the band that launches the next generation of technology. We urge the FCC to move as quickly as possible to open access to these airwaves.
Kate Tummarello is policy director at Engine, an advocacy and research organization that supports tech startups, and has a background in privacy and security issues, including her work as a journalist and as a digital rights activist.
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