Keeping Up With Data Demands: The Case for More Unlicensed Spectrum Bands

Woman in city uses Wi-Fi powered by spectrum to use her smartphone.

When it comes to connecting to the web, most of us don’t think about spectrum bandwidths. If we’re shopping for smartphones, we might nod our heads approvingly at the mention of speeds, but we really just want our devices to work—and work fast. Bottom line? We expect rapid, reliable connectivity but we generally don’t know that much about the underlying science or technology.

The largely unknown truth of the matter is that the spectrum that connects our smartphones, tablets, and laptops is a finite resource. And the inconvenient second layer to this truth is that the portion of spectrum available for “unlicensed” use, which is what allows most of us to connect to Wi-Fi, is even more limited. To understand why this is a problem, we first have to understand what we mean by spectrum: both licensed and unlicensed. Let’s dive in.

Licensed vs. Unlicensed Spectrum

The difference between licensed and unlicensed spectrum is, in a nutshell, this: wireless service providers pay billions of dollars in FCC spectrum auctions for the exclusive right to use certain frequencies. We call this “licensed spectrum.”

Unlicensed spectrum, on the other hand can be freely used. The FCC sets certain rules that apply to all users, but they don’t charge a fee to access unlicensed frequencies. That means that technologies that rely on unlicensed spectrum, including Wi-Fi, are often most cost-effective for everyone involved, from service providers to their customers. It also means that lots of new innovations can happen in unlicensed frequencies because inventors can experiment and try new things without having to pay billions of dollars at auction first.

Currently, the FCC has two primary frequency bands for unlicensed operation that are used for Wi-Fi in the U.S., each with its strengths and weaknesses:

  • 4 GHz was the country’s first Wi-Fi band, but over time it has become a victim of its own success and is now congested with traffic from Wi-Fi devices and other unlicensed users.
  • 5 GHz has more available channels than 2.4 GHz and can support some of the wide-channel Wi-Fi that will bring consumers faster speeds. The band also is not as congested today as 2.4 GHz, but Wi-Fi use is growing and new Wi-Fi technology is coming that needs super wide bandwidths to reach its full potential. Freeing up this 5 GHz spectrum for unlicensed usage will significantly enhance our Wi-Fi future.

The Data Bottleneck

The current system works—for now. But if intervention does not come soon, a data bottleneck looms in the near future. This makes it crucial to open up more unlicensed spectrum bandwidth, which will be capable of carrying more data to consumers.

Fortunately, both the FCC and lawmakers are taking the matter seriously, as they should – the economic impact of unlicensed use is hard to dispute. It added more than $500 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017, and that’s predicted to swell to more than $800 billion by 2020. There is an understanding that innovation and efficiency are being stifled by lack of bandwidth, and there is wide support for freeing more bands. 

The Freedom to Speed

The bottom line is that Wi-Fi, which relies on unlicensed spectrum, is an integral part of our lives and will only become more important in the years ahead. To make the future of Wi-Fi possible, leaders need to hear that you care. Check out our page, More Spectrum Supercharged Wi-Fi, to learn more about the issue and get involved.