With just a few policy changes, the capabilities of unlicensed – including Wi-Fi – networks could be expanded, providing even greater benefits to American consumers than they do today.  By introducing sharing to a particular spectrum band, known as the 5.9 GHz band, now primarily allocated to automobile safety technology, we could bring forward the next generation of Wi-Fi and unlicensed technology and enhance consumers’ Internet experiences.  The two of us and a number of our colleagues have taken leadership positions in the U.S. House of Representatives and the FCC, respectively, to make this concept a reality. 

The possibilities of what unlicensed spectrum may be able to do in the future are endless.  One option would permit the combination of 5.9 GHz with adjacent bands already used for Wi-Fi to create ultra-wideband channels.  Such massive slices of 80 to 160 megahertz could result in a ten-fold or more increase in throughput speeds and capacity.  Imagine downloading gigabit-sized files – or your favorite movie in ultra-high definition – in a matter of seconds.

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In addition, introducing unlicensed in the 5.9 GHz band could help address the exponential increase in wireless traffic expected in the next few years.  For example, the “Internet of Things” is expected to connect hundreds of millions of household and personal devices -- from washing machines and exercise shirts to everything in between.  All of these interactive communications, data and analytics will need to be carried on wireless networks, and Wi-Fi networks make a lot of sense given that commercial wireless companies are already offloading approximately 62 percent of their traffic to these bands to relieve network congestion.  In addition, the growth of wireless broadband usage and particularly bandwidth-intensive video offerings, which are expected to account for 77 percent of mobile Internet traffic by 2020, means we will need to generate more wireless capacity to meet consumer demand.

There is some work to do before we can make the 5.9 GHz band available to Wi-Fi.  One of the main occupants of the band is an experimental automobile safety technology designed to wirelessly connect cars to improve overall safety, possibly preventing auto collisions.  Specifically, since the mid 1990’s, the auto industry has been working on this technology, referred to as Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), that would allow cars to interact with other vehicles, transportation infrastructure, pedestrians and anything else in the surrounding area.  The jury is still out whether this technology will ever come to fruition or be widely deployed in the foreseeable future, but it would be premature to pull the plug.

Regardless of future DSRC developments, spectrum sharing in the 5.9 GHz band is viable and its pursuit is worth the necessary investment of time and energy.  Experience suggests that sharing can occur in this band without causing harmful interference to automobile safety.  While communications regarding vehicular safety would undoubtedly be time sensitive, we already allow sharing in numerous other bands with equally important communications.  For instance, spectrum used for mission-critical Department of Defense (DoD) radar will soon be shared in the 3.5 GHz band with short-range commercial wireless networks.  While it's true that each spectrum band can bring unique issues, if sharing can work for DoD, it's likely to work for the car industry too.  

The next step in the process is to develop a testing framework, which will ensure that science and engineering determine the best way to allow co-existence in this key spectrum band.  After some initial reluctance, all interested parties seem to accept that the FCC should move forward with such testing this year.  In January, the FCC sent a letter, joined by the Departments of Commerce and Transportation, to Congress outlining the steps it plans to take, including soliciting prototype unlicensed devices, to start testing at its lab in Columbia, Maryland.  We trust that this process can start quickly and focus on appropriately protecting DSRC technology’s principal functions, not non-safety matters that can be better addressed by other providers or technologies.

At the end of the day, expanding the functionality of the 5.9 GHz band to permit Wi-Fi and other unlicensed uses while sufficiently protecting DSRC technology would be a great benefit to American consumers and the future growth of the Internet.  Barring any unforeseen technical reasons, we are now on a course to make this happen.  Hopefully, cooperation and a can-do attitude will be linchpins that determine the final outcome for this important spectrum band.      

Latta has represented Ohio’s 5th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee where he is vice chairman of the subcommittee on Communications and Technology. O’Rielly is one of five Commissioners to the Federal Communications Commission. Latta is the sponsor of H.R. 821, the Wi-Fi Innovation Act – a bipartisan, bicameral bill that examines ways to improve spectrum efficiency in the upper 5 GHz band.