Wi-Fi is an incredible success story-- carrying the majority of Internet traffic, responsible for over $90 billion in economic value for the United States in 2013 and a powerful force in closing the digital divide. The success of Wi-Fi demonstrates the power of unlicensed spectrum. But how did we get here? The story of how technologies like Wi-Fi have come to have such a significant impact on our lives will help us think about the future of unlicensed spectrum. 

Thirty years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had a handful of underused radio spectrum frequencies, which were thought to be unusable because of potential interference with popular devices, including microwave ovens. The conventional wisdom was that these frequencies were “junk;” just scraps of spectrum with limited utility. But instead of following its traditional route and issuing licenses to allow single operators to control these bands for specific purposes, the FCC allowed a multi-stakeholder group of technical experts to develop rules of the road for the use of this public spectrum. Those technical experts formed the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). 


Today there are two great risks in unlicensed spectrum. First, a failure of U.S. and international spectrum policymakers to identify new spectrum for unlicensed use could result in a dearth of spectrum for future innovation. Second, technologies that are developed outside the reliable standards process could make the unlicensed bands unusable.  

I’m concerned with the second risk today. 

It is not a coincidence that tremendous success followed the formation of the multi-stakeholder standards-setting body. It is because of this collaborative private sector-based process that Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other unlicensed technologies were able to flourish; converting the so-called “junk bands,” into productive work bands that fuel our economy and lives. 

Technologies that run on unlicensed spectrum have transformed the way we run our networks and get online. The history of collaboration amongst researchers, technical experts and the private sector, has relieved the FCC from the need to judge whether new technologies should be used or not. The FCC and unlicensed spectrum users have relied on engineers and the open, balanced, international standards to ensure that all of these technologies just worked - together.   

We have traditionally avoided risks of incompatibility by working through international standards-setting bodies like the IEEE. These institutions bring together diverse technical interests, and have incentives to make sure new technologies don’t mess up others. If one technology does not share fairly, all users in the space suffer. This approach has ensured that the bands remain usable and provided a venue to resolve potential coexistence issues. Standards-setting bodies, like the IEEE, also ensure that companies do not get into battles over the accuracy or reliability of “tests.” Subjecting tests of technologies to the standards-setting peer review process ensures the best results for consumers. 

The success of Wi-Fi is the result of years of work through standards-setting bodies. It is the embodiment of the cooperative solutions driven by the private sector instead of government. Many other countries recognize the value of this process, and have turned to the wireless standards-setting group, known as “3GPP,” to develop coexistence solutions for LTE in unlicensed spectrum -- a process that today appears promising for consumers and users of unlicensed spectrum. 3GPP is developing specifications for multiple forms of LTE in unlicensed, but has been explicitly bypassed by a small group of US-based carriers and suppliers (the LTE-U Forum). This small group has chosen to ignore the standards process and roll out a type of LTE technology (LTE-U) that may not share well with other unlicensed users, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  

By avoiding the standards-setting processes, this small group of carriers risks harming Americans’ access to the Internet and more regulation in these “innovation bands.” 

Recognizing that government intervention should only be considered as a last resort, we ask LTE-U proponents to join us in finding a multi-stakeholder solution to ensure that existing and new technologies have the potential to grow and thrive. The success we have experienced so far is the result of years of work through standards-setting bodies, and cooperative solutions driven by the private sector. We should all commit to learning from our history and continuing to adhere to this reliable, collaborative standards-setting approach.

Maguire is the campaign director for Save our Wi-Fi.