FCC offers spectrum plan to boost Wi-Fi

Proposal would increase wireless access for tablets, smartphones

As consumers increasingly turn to tablets and smartphones for everything from watching streaming Netflix movies or chatting via video, the FCC took steps on Wednesday to free up additional spectrum as a way to speed up wireless services in public spaces and homes.

The commission proposed making up to 195 megahertz of additional spectrum in the 5 GHz band available for unlicensed wireless devices. The 35% increase will enable faster speeds, increase overall capacity and reduce congestion in Wi-Fi hot spots.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that the proposal would be especially useful in alleviating congestion in areas where many people are trying to access wireless services at once, like at airports, hotels and large conference gatherings. He said that the expansion would represent the largest block of unlicensed spectrum made available for Wi-Fi since 2003.

Other government agencies have expressed concerns that the allocation of the spectrum could create interference with some of their operations, but Genachowski said that there would be “significant consultation” as the proposal goes through a review process.

The FCC already is devising a plan to auction off broadcast spectrum for licensed use to wireless firms. Genachowski said that the problem is exacerbated because cellular networks are “offloading” traffic to Wi-Fi, which in turn has “congestion issues of its own.”

A law passed by Congress last year called for expanding the amount of spectrum for unlicensed use.