What Is Spectrum? And Why Does America’s Wi-Fi Depend on It?

Family on a couch using multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Every day, a series of connected devices keeps us informed, entertained, and safe. These devices, from our laptops and TVs to our smart home technology and home-security systems, all operate thanks to the wireless magic of Wi-Fi.

But what is it that makes Wi-Fi work? The answer is spectrum. Like the radio waves that are picked up by our car radios, Wi-Fi signals travel over spectrum bands to reach our devices. Over time, the use of the spectrum bandwidth available for Wi-Fi has increased dramatically – and with the COVID-19 pandemic spurring a move to work from home, remote education and telehealth, spectrum bandwidth has only gotten more congested.

How can we ensure that there is enough spectrum keep up with America’s Wi-Fi demands?

A New Spectrum Band for Enhanced Wi-Fi

In 2020, 93% of broadband households used Wi-Fi. And with 50 billion devices connected to Wi-Fi around the globe, it should be no surprise that by 2022, the amount of internet traffic generated in a single year is anticipated to be equivalent to the last 32 years combined. That’s a lot of devices that will need a lot of spectrum to function.

Spectrum is divided into bands and channels in different frequency ranges. In order to ensure there’s no harmful interference between different spectrum users in different bands, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates their use. Some channels are licensed for specific use – such as cellular networks – while others are unlicensed and, thus, available to everyone who follows the rules for access. Wi-Fi is one of these unlicensed uses.

Wi-Fi currently uses two parts of the spectrum: the 2.4 and 5 Gigahertz bands. In order ease the heavy load currently being carried on these existing Wi-Fi bands, a proposal before the FCC would open up a new band for Wi-Fi use at 5.9 Gigahertz. Making this band available to the public for Wi-Fi use would quickly bring gigabit-fast speeds to consumers on some of their existing devices.

Achieving Supercharged Wi-Fi

Opening up the 5.9 GHz band would have other advantages, as well. Gigabit-fast speeds would power everything from augmented and virtual reality and 3D video to diagnostic imaging. This augmented capacity would increase the ability to stream more services and leverage more technology and more innovation, boosting the economy.

Speaking of the economy, it is estimated that opening just the bottom part of the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi would generate $29.68 billion in economic benefits between 2020 and 2025.

Opening the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi – along with unlicensed access to the 6 GHz band once equipment is deployed – would create a truly integrated and supercharged information online experience. With 70% of the world’s data traffic now being routed through cell phones, and with three-quarters of the world’s population predicted to use only smartphones to access the internet by 2025, this would represent a powerful way to guarantee speed, efficiency, capacity, and coverage.    

Powering Innovation for the Future

With Wi-Fi use continuing to increase every year, it is fundamental for our regulations to keep pace. The Beyond community supports the FCC’s move to unleash more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi use in the 5.9 GHz band. Not only will this move relieve congestion and immediately bring faster-speeds to consumers in their existing devices, but it has a wide range of economic and technical benefits – including helping expand broadband access to rural areas. The fact that the FCC has already made part of the 5.9 GHz band temporarily available for unlicensed use by wireless internet service providers, who quickly used the band to offer rural broadband access during the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrates that more efficient use of this band is possible and can bring real benefits to Americans.

With more Americans working and learning from home over their broadband connection than ever before, we need the FCC to make unlicensed spectrum available at 5.9 GHz now. Let’s finish the job and ensure that the internet of the future powers the innovations of the future.

To join us in urging the FCC to free up spectrum for Wi-Fi use, please sign our petition here.