The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Opening up Wi-Fi to the Internet of Things

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Over the weekend, a high school freshman printed a history report; a man researched job postings over the Internet on his tablet; a family watched a TV show on their laptop while waiting for an appointment; and, a woman talked to her mother on her home’s cordless phone.  All of these actions used unlicensed spectrum either through a Wi-Fi connection, or near-point radio frequencies.

The use of Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum has led to what is commonly becoming known as the Internet of Things (IoT), which was highlighted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  Among the new gadgets based on IoT are toothbrushes that give information on which teeth need a better cleaning, a tennis racket that records the player’s strokes, and a wireless dog collar that can help find lost pets.  In his keynote speech at CES, Cisco CEO John Chambers predicted that IoT would become a $19 trillion market over the next several years.  However, there are lingering issues about how best to provide enough spectrum for unlicensed use.

Wi-Fi devices work over one of two spectrum bands, either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, both of which are unlicensed.  The 2.4 GHz band is most frequently used for industrial, scientific, and medical purposes, and only has three non-overlapping channels.  The 5 GHz band has been allocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the automotive industry, satellite phones, as well as some government use, and has 23 non-overlapping channels.  While the 2.4 GHz spectrum has a wider network range than the 5 GHz range, it also has a higher level of interference due to the increasing amount of uses for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum. 

On February 20, 2013, the FCC proposed making additional spectrum in the 5 GHz range available for unlicensed broadband.  The automobile industry uses some of this spectrum, particularly in the 5850-5925 MHz range for its dedicated short range communications service systems, and the satellite phone industry uses the 5150-5250 MHz band.   

Globalstar, a provider of satellite phone services indicated in their comments to the FCC that opening up the 5 GHz bandwidth to unlicensed use outdoors would have a substantial detrimental impact on their licensed two-way (duplex) mobile satellite service.  At the end of 2012, the company provided duplex service to fewer than 85,000 customers worldwide.  A separate study by CableLabs and the University of Colorado, released on January 22, 2014, found that satellite phone users could co-exist on this frequency without experiencing harmful interference from the expansion of Wi-Fi access to the 5 GHz band.

Opening up the 5 Ghz spectrum bandwidth to Wi-Fi and unlicensed applications provides an opportunity for new technology development, and improved use of existing devices.  The CableLabs' study completes the public record needed for the FCC to make a decision.  Newer technologies that utilize Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum make it essential that the spectrum allocation be expanded for the IoT.

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