Two Cheers for More Unlicensed Spectrum

As expected, the FCC approved an
additional 255 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz range for unlicensed
wireless devices.  This was the result of a deal several months
ago between major technology companies and the military, which uses the
spectrum for some of its radar systems. 

The additional spectrum is very welcome.  It’s a credit to Michael
Powell that he has taken concrete steps to facilitate the growth of
unlicensed wireless networks, with his support of WiFi, ultra-wideband,
and now this step. 

However, there are two elements of the FCC’s action that are
troubling.  The first is that the technical standards for the band
were determined through a private negotation.  A compromise with
the military was necessary to free up the spectrum, and it was an
accomplishment to get any agreement at all.  However, because a
few large companies essentially represented the private sector in the
negotiations, it’s not clear whether the standards adopted will allow
for development of innovative new services.  “Open spectrum”
advocates such as David Reed have expressed serious reservations that
the FCC’s limitations will hamstring the new band.

The second concern is that this allocation will be seen as sufficient
for the full potential of unlicensed to be realized, especially
last-mile broadband.  Even without the FCC technical limitations,
it’s important to note that this is high-frequency spectrum. 
Radio waves at 5 GHz don’t propagate long distances or penetrate
obstacles well.  The new bandwidth will improve capacity for
802.11a wireless LANs, but but it may not be effective for the
longer-range scenarios that broadband to the home entails. 

So let’s congratulate the FCC for what it’s done, but not pretend
they’ve done everything they should.  The battle for open spectrum