Harnessing the Potential of ‘Unlicensed Spectrum’ to Power Connectivity

Weekly Article
June 1, 2017

It’s hard to imagine any sector of the economy that isn’t in some way tapping into the boom of mobile broadband connectivity. For online content providers like Netflix or Facebook and for retailers like Amazon, better and more widespread connection to the Internet is better for both companies and consumers.

Yet the issue for businesses looking to capitalize on improved connectivity is that there’s only a limited amount of the invisible infrastructure—or the airwaves that carry signals from a device to a network—that allows consumers to connect to the Internet wirelessly. Moreover, most of those airwaves, known as spectrum, are exclusively licensed to mobile carriers such as AT&T and Verizon so they can use them to build a network for calls, texts, and wireless connection to the Internet. There are some bands of airwaves, however, that have been left unlicensed for more public uses, such as for Wi-Fi and for boosting connectivity in rural areas.

And it’s this unlicensed spectrum that’s absolutely essential to the growth of the US economy. Making use of already-freed bands of airwaves—and pressing the Federal Communications Commission to make more bands of airwaves in high, low, and mid-range frequencies available on an unlicensed basis—will only catalyze further growth and innovation. Or put another way, unlicensed spectrum is the real backbone of how people use the Internet today—and we’d be wise to harness this potential and what it could mean for businesses and the public interest.

“It’s time to appreciate the broader role that Wi-Fi plays in the economy and society,” Edgar Figueroa, president and chief executive of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said at a recent New America Wireless Future Project and Microsoft event. Nest, Pandora, the New York Times, and UPS are some of the companies for whom Wi-Fi plays a crucial role, Figueroa said, adding that his group has spoken to UPS about how the company uses Wi-Fi daily for business-critical activities.

“Their business would be severely hampered, if not brought down, if it weren’t for the connectivity that Wi-Fi is providing and in the way that they’re relying on it,” Figueroa said of UPS’s use of Wi-Fi.

 The prevalent use of Wi-Fi makes clear how vital unlicensed spectrum has become to connectivity, as consumers’ use of mobile devices increases. Cisco’s 2016 Visual Networking Index, released in March, found that at least 60 percent of all mobile data traffic in 2016 was offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks. More traffic was offloaded to Wi-Fi in 2016 than had remained on cellular networks, according to Cisco. Other studies, based on measuring actual consumer use, estimate that roughly 80 percent of mobile data is carried via Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum, which makes wireless connectivity faster and more affordable overall.

So what’s the next Wi-Fi frontier? And how can we tap into it for public good?

A key band of airwaves that companies are seeking is the unused spectrum in lower frequencies that sit between TV channels. The spectrum in the gaps between bands of airwaves reserved for broadcast television offers prime real estate for companies seeking to bolster connectivity.

Those unused bands of airwaves, known as “TV white spaces” (TVWS), are a target for Microsoft in particular. The company recently introduced a program to bring free Internet access to rural families to help bridge the “homework gap” in Charlotte and Halifax counties in southern Virginia. Microsoft built the network—which is being offered to 100 households—with a year-end goal to reach 1,000 homes with unused “low-band spectrum” in the TV white space. Last year, New America’s Open Technology Institute also urged the FCC to allow schools to leverage TVWS to give students lacking broadband at home remote access to the school’s high-capacity broadband, which would be subsidized by the federal E-Rate program.

Paul Garnett, Microsoft’s senior director of affordable access, said at the event that the company sees TV white space technology as “very complementary to other types of technologies,” leading to a frequent mix of radio, Wi-Fi, and even LTE and fiber connections being supported by the use of TV white space airwaves.

As a cloud provider, Microsoft has invested deep interest in advocating for as much unlicensed spectrum as possible, because so much traffic is funneled through those airwaves in today’s economy. “We see unlicensed as being massively critical to connectivity to content and information,” said Paula Boyd, director of government and regulatory affairs at Microsoft.

Wireless Internet service providers that often serve large rural areas equipped with less broadband infrastructure and connectivity also rely on unlicensed spectrum for business.

“We don’t have to go ask for permission to deploy rural broadband on unlicensed airwaves,” Mark Radabaugh, a director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) and its FCC committee chair, said. WISPA represents about 800 members that primarily serve rural areas. Most of those members are “smaller companies that invested their own money” after identifying a need for connectivity in their local communities, Radabaugh added.

Unlicensed spectrum can also help shore up connectivity in urban areas and address the “urban bandwidth challenge,” Alan Norman, public policy director at Facebook, said.

Facebook is developing a program known as Terragraph, which connects small distribution nodes to existing infrastructure in urban areas, such as light poles. The nodes deliver higher capacity to a Wi-Fi access point or an Ethernet connection to homes and other buildings, Norman said. Facebook aims to run the network using airwaves in the high-frequency 60 GHz band.

As the United States prepares for the advent of 5G networks and the so-called Internet of Things, freeing up bands of airwaves in low, high, and medium frequencies for unlicensed use will be crucial to the wireless economy. What’s more, creative use of unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi may also help bridge the digital divide that severs the connected and the unconnected.

Increasing the amount of unlicensed spectrum would benefit the public interest and the growing digital economy—there should be a strong commitment to freeing up as much of it as possible.