• United States

Can cities regulate 802.11?

Apr 05, 20043 mins
Network SecurityRegulationWi-Fi

Q: I’ve heard of two cities that are looking into passing ordinances to restrict or reserve 802.11 wireless frequencies for networks run by that city’s government. Is it possible for a local government (or state or federal for that matter) to enforce such an ordinance? Ted, Forest Grove, Ore.

The Wizards respond: 

Bob O’Hara, Airespace:

This would be a very interesting precedent to say the least. State and local governments have no authority to create and / or enforce any policies pertaining to any form of communication within their geographical domain. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating communication by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable, with a jurisdiction spanning the entire U.S. and its possessions.

The FCC has designated specific unlicensed spectrum for use by a number of wireless devices, including 802.11 devices. One particular band is the Industrial-Scientific-Medical (ISM) band at 2.450-2.484 GHz. Another band is the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) bands at 5.15-5.35 GHz and 5.47-5825 GHz. These specific spectrum bands are considered unlicensed because the operator does not require a license to transmit at these frequencies, however the particular equipment being utilized still must be certified to be operating according to the FCC’s regulations. Therefore any enterprise, organization, or individual that wishes to use these frequencies may do so as long as they utilize FCC compliant devices.

There has been precedent where local municipalities have restricted construction of equipment based on safety issues, like dangerous wiring to equipment, however no wireless equipment has been restricted based on usage of federally sanctioned frequencies. Local government agencies would have to successfully petition the FCC for the right to restrict these frequencies for their sole use. This is highly unlikely considering the two following facts. For one, the FCC has already designated specific bands for local government use. Also, some Wi-Fi vendors have proven their system’s ability to adapt and function in the presence of the growing levels of radio interference in these bands.

Luc Roy, Chantry Networks:

In the U.S., the FCC manages “civilian” and state and local government usage of the radio spectrum. The Commission has the authority to investigate any user of the band, but by definition, WLAN (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) operates in the unlicensed bands, which means that anyone can use it legally.

But if you’re causing harmful interference (for reasons like using too much power, or interfering with a life dependent navigational system, or others), then only a commissioner of FCC can direct you to cease operation. If you are challenged, you can always suggest that all microwave ovens should cease to operate since they run at 2.4 GHz also.

On the other hand, a city does have zoning rules, such as the height of antennas. Make sure you’re aware of any special zoning laws.

Albert Lew, Legra Systems:

There is precedence for this happening in Pocahontas County, West Virginia called the Radio Quiet Zone, which is used by radio astronomers. However, this quiet zone was set aside in 1958 by the FCC and not local officials. Unfortunately, Legra is a wireless vendor, and cannot advise anyone on spectrum policy.