Tech industry pushing FCC for more Wi-Fi airwaves in 2015 spectrum auction

The tech industry is pressuring the Obama administration to set aside more free, unlicensed airwaves that help fuel Wi-Fi networks, a demand that will create tension as the government tries to also boost revenue-producing licensed airwaves.

Next year, the Federal Communications Commission will auction off airwaves worth billions to wireless companies. While the agency has pledged to set aside some unlicensed airwaves — which fuel consumer electronic devices like garage door openers and Wi-Fi routers — some fear the FCC might not reserve enough of the valuable airwaves as it tries to meet congressionally set revenue goals.

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The highly anticipated 2015 auction will involve buying airwaves back from broadcasters and then selling new licenses for those airwaves to spectrum-hungry wireless companies looking to expand their networks.

While most focus on the battle between wireless companies over the agency's plans to limit certain companies in the auction, the tech industry is watching to see how much of the available spectrum the FCC will set aside for unlicensed use.

The agency announced Friday that it would be reserving some space for unlicensed use in the 2015 auction, including in the "guard bands," which are airwaves set aside between licensed spectrum to prevent interference between different services and uses.

According to an FCC official, the exact amount of airwaves to be set aside for unlicensed use depends on how much spectrum broadcasters are willing to sell back, and cannot be determined precisely until the auction begins next year.

In a blog post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler touted the proposal's opportunities for unlicensed spectrum.

"As part of the Incentive Auction process, we will also make available on a nationwide basis spectrum for unlicensed use (think Wi-Fi)," he wrote.

"With the increased use of Wi-Fi, this spectrum has also become congested. Opening up more spectrum for unlicensed use provides economic value to businesses and consumers alike."

Congress will be watching as the FCC tries to balance the need for generating revenue by selling licenses and encouraging innovation through unlicensed airwaves.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Spectrum Caucus, said she is "confident that the Commission recognizes the importance of unlicensed spectrum for super Wi-Fi services and the importance of low-band spectrum for the Wi-Fi ecosystem."

"The Commission must work creatively to develop a band plan that leads to greater investments in unlicensed spectrum technologies and economy," she said. "It is important that the FCC gets it right."

Based on the FCC's plans, some in the tech industry say the agency is not reserving enough unlicensed spectrum.

One wireless activist expressed optimism that the agency will reconsider its plans and greatly expand unlicensed airwaves.

"A blog post is a blog post; nothing is set in stone yet," the activist said.

"Licensed spectrum is important, but the other part of the wireless future is going to be driven by unlicensed spectrum," she said. "We believe the FCC recognizes that, but we hope to see that in practice, with the agency reserving more spectrum for unlicensed use."

Tech companies like Google and Microsoft are making an aggressive push for the FCC to set aside larger amounts of airwaves for unlicensed use and to minimize the obstacles to using those airwaves.

The New America Foundation, which also supports an expansion in unlicensed spectrum, has urged the agency to make the guard bands — which are required to be "technically reasonable" to prevent interference — 12 MHz wide and to open up airwaves currently used by wireless microphones.

In a filing with the FCC, Michael Calabrese, director of the New America Foundation's Wireless Project, pointed to a "grave concern in the public interest community" that the agency will prioritize generating auction revenue over other policy goals.

Larra Clark, director of the American Library Association's Program on Networks, has warned that the FCC should not be lured by the "more immediately apparent" value of licensed airwaves, and should not "preclude the opportunity for experimentation and innovation in the unlicensed space."

She said that she and others will continue pressuring the FCC to recognize "the value of unlicensed spectrum, even if it's not one that you can put a price tag on."