• Mark Potkewitz

FCC decision's impact on WiFi

On Thursday, 23 April, the US Federal Communications Commission voted to open up the 6 gigahertz spectrum band for WiFi and other unlicensed uses.


While this may not sound that significant, it will lead to advances in WiFi speeds and throughput by freeing up more spectrum for use in wireless data transfers.


A brief science lesson:

Spectrum refers to the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation—a form of radiant energy. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. So are radio waves, infrared light, microwaves, x-rays, ultraviolet light, and other forms of radiation. Not all radiation is super dangerous.


Anyway, different forms of radiation operate in different parts of the spectrum. So, visible light refers to the range frequencies the human eye perceives as colour. Microwaves operate at a different frequency range, etc. We measure frequencies in hertz (Hz) which we think of as one cycle per second. We can also use hertz to measure sound waves.


We have these different arbitrary definitions of different types of electromagnetic radiation that we define by falling within these different frequency ranges. We can then carve out different ranges of spectrum, which we call "bands", and agree how they should be used for different applications.


A brief history/policy lesson:

There are agreements in place that ship-to-shore radio uses a certain frequency range, and only 1 radio station in a given geographic area will be permitted to transmit on 95.9 FM, and that only 1 TV station in a geographic area will broadcast on Channel 4 (which has a handful of frequencies assigned to it for video and audio and some other things). If those rules were not in place, we would run the risk of competing stations or channels broadcasting on the same frequency and commingling the signals in a fashion that would distort the signals received by the listener/viewer. As a result, many governments stepped in to regulate the use of this spectrum. Ofcom's got a neat interactive chart you can visit to see how it's done in the UK.


However, it would make things difficult if ship-to-ship radios on South American ships didn't work with ship-to-ship radios on Asian ships. So, there are international conventions and agreements in place to ensure that there is a more uniform approach to how different jurisdictions regulate different spectrum bands, so certain ranges are used for terrestrial radio, certain for mobile telecommunications, some for satellite communications, and so on, and so on.


Back to WiFi:

Since so many frequency bands were set aside for particular use in the U.S., the government also carved out a few frequency bands that anybody could use so long as they agreed not to broadcast signals too powerfully or too far. These were in the range of 900 megahertz (MHz), 2.4 gigahertz (GHz), and 5 GHz. (This is different from 5G, the Fifth Generation of wireless telecommunications standards). Any tinkerer could use any of these frequency bands without getting a license from a regulatory authority to operate within any of those particular bands. That's why so many devices like cordless phone and baby monitors would operate in these bands.


Fast forward, and a group called the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) came out with a new series of standards referred to as 802.11 for wireless networking. The 802.11 standards used these unlicensed spectrum bands, which is why nearly all routers operate at 2.4 and 5.0 GHz.


Conclusion:

The opening up of more spectrum for unlicensed use will foster development of wireless tech. This will likely result in faster wireless connectivity and more throughput, and provides some much needed room for competition and innovation.

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