FCC Spectrum Plan Seeks to Unclog Wi-Fi Congestion

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Regulators on Wednesday proposed to free up certain slices of airwaves in an ongoing effort to tackle the shortage of available wireless spectrum, a move that could ease Wi-Fi congestion in airports and other high-use hubs.

The Federal Communications Commission's proposal would open up for public use some of the airwaves now largely used by government entities, including the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration, for navigation, surveillance and other activities.

The proposed rule would add 195 MHz of unlicensed spectrum to the 555 MHz currently available in the less-congested 5 GHz radio frequency band. The proposal also seeks better technical rules for sharing of spectrum -- airwaves used to transmit wireless signals -- by federal, commercial and private users.

A government review of the 5 GHz band last year raised concerns about risks of interference posed by such shared use of the spectrum and called for more testing, which could last through 2014, to ensure no federal missions would be hurt.

The FCC's move also raised red flags in the auto industry, which worries about interference with new technology such as self-driving cars and systems that help avoid accidents.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he did not foresee the need to backtrack on sharing of the requested frequencies and hoped that the current users and the FCC could consult and come up with a solution.

"This proposal today is based on a tremendous amount of engineering work," he said. "So we don't now see any reason why we can't put 195 new megahertz of spectrum for unlicensed use on the market and do it in a way that's compatible with other existing users."

President Barack Obama has directed the FCC and its counterpart overseeing government-used airwaves, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to greatly expand the commercial use of the government-controlled spectrum over the next decade.

A rising number of devices and programs rely on such connections, and the FCC and the telecommunications industry have warned of a looming shortage that could hurt the quality, speed and coverage of U.S. data connection services.

The FCC will now collect comments for the plan. Analysts forecast implementation would take months given the concerns, reiterated in a Tuesday letter from the NTIA, that wider use of the new airwaves risks interfering with important government programs already on those wavelengths.

FCC officials said the goal was particularly to boost wireless connections at stadiums, airports, convention centers and other places where large numbers of people try to use the Internet at the same time.