Spectrum: The Wheels of the FCC Grind Slowly

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Remember back at CES in January when Federal communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a plan to free 195 MHz of spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band for expanded Wi-Fi? I hope you we’re planning on using it anytime soon.

As outlined by wireless guru Steven Crowley, it’s going to be at least 2015 before the new unlicensed spectrum becomes available. The FCC has put a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (FCC-speak for its snail-paced official decision-making process) on the agenda for its Feb. 20 meeting.

One problem is that the FCC shared responsibility for spectrum allocation with the Commerce Dept.’s National Technical Information Administration–and NTIA doesn’t seem terribly enthusiastic about the idea and certainly is in no rush to implement it. The big complication is that  federal government radars and ground-to-air communications systems operate in the 5 GHz band, and any new Wi-Fi uses will have to protect those operations. A preliminary NTIA report of  spectrum allocation warns of interference risks and concludes “that further analysis will be required to determine whether and how the identified risk factors can be mitigated through, for example, the promulgation of new safeguards in addition to the FCC’s existing requirements.” That report is not due until the end of 2014, and then it is anyone’s guess how long it will take for whatever safeguards are recommended to be implemented.

Another threat to the additional Wi-Fi spectrum comes from, of all places, the auto industry. Once of the proposed new Wi-Fi channels is adjacent to spectrum allocated for Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a very promising technology that can be used by cars to communicate with each others and with roadside sensors. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America has written to Genachowski warning of possible interference with DSRC and asking for further study before the expansion of Wi-Fi is approved.

Nobody ever said this spectrum stuff was easy.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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