FCC Takes Actions to Boost Wi-Fi Signals

FCC actions boost Wi-Fi signals in stadiums and tunnels, and open more spectrum for unlicensed devices like Wi-Fi routers.

by / February 22, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission took two actions on Tuesday, Feb. 19, both of which benefit wireless users with smartphones or laptops that rely on wireless connections to the Internet.  

First, the FCC approved an order to enhance wireless coverage for consumers by adopting new rules for signal boosters, while protecting existing wireless networks from interference.  Second, the FCC issued a new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to open new parts of the 5 GHz spectrum for unlicensed uses by wireless devices.  

The 195 megahertz of additional spectrum will help encourage new Wi-Fi technology that can offer faster speeds of one gigabit per second or more, increase overall capacity and reduce congestion at Wi-Fi hotspots.

Signal Booster Order

As to the first FCC action, signal boosters amplify signals between wireless devices and wireless networks.  They are inexpensive ways to expand the reach of the nation’s wireless infrastructure to handle the increasing load.  The FCC’s new rules will improve signal booster design by requiring manufacturers to include safeguards that protect wireless networks.  The major nationwide and regional wireless companies have consented to the use of boosters on their networks, so long as those boosters meet the technical specifications in the FCC order to protect against harmful interference.  Wireless companies and public safety communications systems have had issues with technically deficient or improperly-installed signal boosters causing interference with their networks.  The order strikes a balance between encouragement of signal boosters with clear operating and technical rules, and ensuring harmful interference is prevented.

The practical importance of these new rules is that signal boosters can help consumers where wireless signal strength is weak, and consumers experience dropped calls, reduced data speed or loss of service.  Given increased consumer reliance on mobile devices as their only communication device for voice and Internet service, “dead spots” can be very vexing.

How are signal boosters used?  Consumer signal boosters can be installed easily in the home to improve wireless phone reception there.  A rural park can boost the weak wireless signal with a signal booster so park users can call for help in an emergency.  Also signal boosters can be placed in hard-to-serve areas like tunnels, subways and garages to aid public safety officials like sheriffs, police and fire departments, get wireless coverage there.

Another important part of the signal booster decision is that new rules are set forth for industrial signal boosters that can cover large areas like stadiums, airports and tunnels.  Many sports fans know that during a major sporting event, the airways can get congested when sports fans all try to text and send photos at once from their smartphones.  The new rules require industrial signal boosters to be installed and operated in coordination with wireless licensees and they must comply with an authorization process set forth in the rules.

More Spectrum for Wi-Fi

The FCC’s second action was to launch a rulemaking proceeding to make up to 195 megahertz of additional spectrum in the 5 GHz band available to unlicensed wireless devices.  The FCC’s Notice emphasizes that this is a 35% increase in the amount of spectrum available for unlicensed use, and the largest release of unlicensed airwaves in a decade.

Currently Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure devices operate in 555 megahertz of spectrum.  The devices are typically used for short range, high speed wireless connections, including Wi-Fi enabled local area networks, Bluetooth devices, and fixed outdoor broadband transceivers used by Wireless Internet service providers to connect smart phones, tablets and laptops to the broadband network.  Having more spectrum available will allow unlicensed devices to use wider bandwidth channels leading to faster speeds, and it will relieve congestion in places like airports, hotels and homes.

A positive decision on this proposal will help the nation’s cable operators, who have deployed over 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for their customers’ use throughout the nation.  (Wi-Fi is a popular wireless networking technology that uses radio waves to provide wireless high speed internet and network connections.)  The proposal will also help consumers who use unlicensed wireless devices in their homes, including Wi-Fi home routers, wireless phones, Bluetooth technology, garage door openers, and baby monitors. 

Politically, freeing up more spectrum for unlicensed use has been controversial.  Some fiscally conservative lawmakers prefer to see as much spectrum as possible auctioned off to private companies, to raise as much money as possible to reduce budget deficits or reduce the national debt.  The FCC Commissioners however believe that more unlicensed spectrum will lead to more innovation, as it has since the first efforts to establish unlicensed spectrum out of some “junk bands” (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) in the mid-Eighties.  These “junk bands” are now some of the most valuable spectrum due to the innovative uses that entrepreneurs have created.

Others with concerns include the groups who want more transportation technology, such as connected vehicle technology like self-driving vehicles.  They don’t want the FCC to prioritize Wi-Fi technology over connected vehicle technology.  Finally, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration has expressed some interference concerns because the some federal agencies like NASA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security use this band.  The FCC has assured these stakeholders that they will work with them to find solutions that deal with these concerns.

Finally, the FCC is proposing to create a more flexible regulatory environment for unlicensed devices, and wants to streamline existing regulations and equipment authorization procedures for devices in this band.  The FCC will now collect public comments on its proposals and then decide whether to proceed to order the changes via new rules and technical specifications.

These two FCC actions are very positive for entrepreneurs working in the unlicensed space, public safety communications system operators, wireless carriers, wireless Internet Service Providers, cable providers who operate W-Fi hotspots, and consumers who use wireless devices.

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Rachelle Chong Columnist,

Rachelle Chong is a nationally known expert on telecommunications, broadband, wireless communications, cable, digital literacy, public safety communications, renewable energy and smart grid policy. She is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (Clinton appointee) and the California Public Utilities Commission (Schwarzenegger appointee). Prior to that, she has been Vice President, Government Affairs for Comcast California Region, Special Counsel for the CA Technology Agency, a partner at two international law firms (Graham & James and Coudert Brothers), and an entrepreneur. Rachelle is delighted to brush off her Journalism degree from Cal Berkeley, and serve as a columnist for Techwire, focusing on federal policies and the San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech/telecom beats.