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Business interests push for more unlicensed spectrum

WifiForward group brings together cable operators, tech companies

By , Network World
February 18, 2014 08:22 AM ET

Network World - A new industry group has unintentionally thrown light on the business interests that underlie debates over U.S. spectrum policy.

The group, calling itself WifiForward, says it will work to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee radios for streaming video, talking to your smartphone, home heating/cooling sensors and a host of other uses.

Its membership consists of cable companies, their equipment suppliers, consumer electronics business groups and retailers, specialized “advocacy” (or lobbying) groups, and technology companies including Microsoft and Google. (A complete list is available on the group’s website.) Notable by their absence are other broadband companies, both wireline and wireless carriers such as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, and other network operators.

WifiForward unveiled itself this week, with the self-appointed mission of “working to alleviate the Wi-Fi spectrum crunch and to support making Wi-Fi even better by finding more unlicensed spectrum.”

“WifiForward's mission is to educate all of those groups [consumers, policymakers, representatives of non-tech industries, and the media] and draw the connections very clearly between unlicensed spectrum with innovation, investment and job growth,” according to a spokeswoman, via email. “We'll do that by being the voice for unlicensed technologies and telling the stories of these technologies in use across all industries.”

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD How white spaces wireless network works at West Virginia University | Blogger Craig Mathias on “Does Cellular Replace Wi-Fi?" +

“The coalition will not file in proceedings at the Commission, nor lobby members of Congress directly,” according to the email.

Both Comcast and Time Warner are members of Wi-FiForward. Both have aggressive Wi-Fi offerings, in part to compete with the wireline and wireless telco carriers. Comcast offers subscribers access to over 500,000 hotspots nationwide, can pay for hourly, daily or weekly Wi-Fi passes. Time Warner offers subscribers free access to over 200,000 hotspots, its own and those of partners. 

But WiFiForward seems to be preaching to the already-converted, as there’s little evidence of a debate about the virtues of expanding the unlicensed spectrum. Over a year ago, then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the agency would work quickly to add 195MHz of spectrum for Wi-Fi in the 5GHz band, increasing the available capacity by 35 percent. According to Genachowski, the action is needed because Wi-Fi faces a likely spectrum crunch, analogous to the much-discussed cellular spectrum crunch. Current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reiterated that commitment last month. 

Another spectrum bonanza opened by the FCC, the so-called white spaces of unused TV signals, is already being explored in pilot networks springing up in the U.S. and around the world. A typical example is a recent network deployed at West Virginia University. [See “Better than TV! White spaces bring wireless bonanza to West Virginia”] Wi-Fi clients connect to an access point, which then interfaces with a white spaces radio, in effect piggybacking on the white spaces spectrum. Eventually, radio chips will let clients directly access these bands.

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