Cisco Blogs

An Unlicensed Roadblock?

October 20, 2011 - 1 Comment

The road to US spectrum reform often feels like  anything but a Superhighway.  New obstacles emerged just today, when it became apparent that House Members on the Energy and Commerce Committee have yet to reach agreement on much needed spectrum legislation.

The latest roadblock?  What to do about unlicensed spectrum.

As the leading provider of unlicensed devices in the world, Cisco has a unique business perspective on this matter and has thought a lot about this should be reconciled, and our perspective is well settled.

We strongly believe that unlicensed technology such as WiFi will be a critical part of addressing the rising demand for data traffic from smartphones, tablets, laptops, and a myriad of other mobile devices.  Mobile carriers need more spectrum to address this demand, and more spectrum is needed for unlicensed devices, too.  For unlicensed, policymakers should focus their attention on 5 GHz and the benefits of expanding the existing vibrant WiFi ecosystem.

If we take a wrong turn now, then we will miss an enormous opportunity to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband and generate billions of revenue for the federal government.

Here’s why:

First – Congressional action on spectrum would yield enormous benefits in the short term – driving economic growth, creating jobs, and spurring innovation.  With any legislation, there will be different views.  That’s part of the process.  But differences should not bring the process to a standstill.

Spectrum legislation is needed to give the FCC tools to make more wireless broadband spectrum available. Based on Cisco’s Visual Networking Index data demonstrating the projected growth in mobile data, it is critical to get this issue addressed. In addition, it is critical to move forward on transitioning more spectrum from federal use to commercial use.  We are at the very beginning of the mobile broadband explosion, and failure of policymakers to act now will mean a lack of connectivity, dropped connections, and slow data rates in the future.  No one wants that outcome.

Second – the value of WiFi and other unlicensed technologies that run on unlicensed spectrum is to take spectrum that would otherwise not be used, and to put it to productive work.  In other words, in situations where unlicensed can co-exist with an existing use, and not interfere with that use, that ability to “share” is the economic dividend that should command the policymaker’s attention.

The expansion of unlicensed technologies such as Wi-Fi from the original 2.4 GHz band into 5 GHz occurs in a shared environment and has proven to be remarkably successful– unlicensed shares with federal systems at 5 GHz, using spectrum that would otherwise lie fallow.   Maximizing industry’s ability to put that spectrum to work, without creating harmful interference to existing users, should be everyone’s goal in a world where WiFi is in every mobile device, and new WiFi applications are growing at a brisk clip.

Third – a critical question in spectrum reform is whether the reform will result in spectrum being put to work in the economy.  Unlicensed spectrum at 5 GHz consists of an ecosystem of large, well-established chipset manufacturers, hundreds of radio manufacturers and others who already are producing technology for sale in most countries of the world.   If additional unlicensed spectrum is made available at 5 GHz, there is an immediate impact to US industry to produce innovative new products, and drive new applications, to benefit business and consumers.   For that reason, Cisco strongly favors policies that support an examination of whether additional shared spectrum at 5 GHz can be made available to unlicensed.

Proposals before Congress to create a new, sub 3-GHz spectrum band for unlicensed, such as a new band in the TV UHF band dedicated to unlicensed, put the emphasis in the wrong place.  New radio ecosystems, even in favorable circumstances, can take a decade or more to develop, leaving spectrum unused at a time when the licensed mobile industry has an acute demand for it.  Whether a new unlicensed ecosystem could successfully develop in the UHF band is anybody’s guess.

Of equal importance, clearing spectrum below 3 GHz for unlicensed  excludes one use (licensed mobile) in favor of another  (unlicensed).  Contrast that to unlicensed use at 5 GHz, where existing federal users remain, unlicensed devices operate on spectrum that would otherwise remain idle, and everyone benefits from more intensive use of the radio spectrum.  To Cisco, shared spectrum use, building off the  existing ecosystem at 5 GHz, presents the most compelling vision for unlicensed.

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