Gigabit Wi-Fi services are one step closer to reality following the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to unanimously adopt an order today, March 31, 2014, authorizing use of an additional 100 MHz of unlicensed spectrum for Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices operating in the 5150-5250 MHz portion of the 5 GHz U-NII-1 band. U-NII devices are wireless access devices that currently support a variety of applications including Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless home LANs to connect smart phones, tablets and laptops to the Internet. 

Although the order has not yet been released, Commission press releases and statements indicate that the decision effectively doubles the amount of bandwidth available in the 5 GHz band and enables gigabit Wi-Fi connections under the 802.11ac standard. This decision is a win for cable operators and other entities deploying Wi-Fi networks and access points across the county. All five of the agency’s Commissioners recognized the increasingly important role of Wi-Fi networks in today’s Internet ecosystem, illustrated by recent Cisco estimates that by 2018 more than half of all Internet traffic from smart phones will be offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks. 

Citing inspiration from Hollywood actress Heddy Lamarr (who holds the patent on an early prototype of the first spread spectrum frequency-hopping technology)1 , the FCC’s order reportedly sets forth new rules that will, among other things, eliminate indoor-only use prohibitions on devices operating in this frequency, raise permissible power limits for these devices, and harmonize certain rules with the U-NII-3 band. By lifting the indoor-only use restrictions and increasing permissible power limits, the FCC hopes that U-NII wireless devices will be better integrated with other unlicensed portions of the 5 GHz band to offer faster speeds and reduce congestion at crowded Wi-Fi hotspots such as in airports and convention centers.

At the same time the order also reportedly includes some protections for incumbent users, primarily satellite operators, including: limiting the amount of energy that can be directed up toward satellites and requiring companies to notify the Commission if they are deploying more than 1,000 Wi-Fi access points in the UNII-1 band. In addition, the FCC will modify its existing rules to require device manufacturers to use secure software to prevent unauthorized modifications to the devices which could produce harmful interference to radio services.

While this action is significant, it represents an incremental step forward for the Commission, which reserved for further comment more difficult questions surrounding access to an additional 195 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the U-NII-2 band.

This decision is likely to have a significant impact on the exploding market for Wi-Fi services by virtually doubling the amount of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. More broadly, this decision signals the agency’s increasing commitment to expanding access to unlicensed spectrum, and is likely to be emulated in other proceedings such as the pending 3.5 GHz “shared spectrum” proceeding, and the 600 MHz broadcast incentive auction.

Additional analysis and information will be available upon release of the FCC’s order.