Time for a Comprehensive Strategy for License-Exempt Spectrum

Spectrum ConnectivityCalls for regulators to release more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi are getting louder: the 2.4 GHz band is heavily used and the 5 GHz band suffers from many restrictions that limit its applicability. LTE’s entry into unlicensed spectrum is further amplifying these calls and adding an acute sense of urgency.

But what is required is more than additional unlicensed spectrum. There needs to be a comprehensive strategy not only for additional unlicensed spectrum, but also for ensuring that regulations are harmonized to the extent possible between regions and are aligned with socio-economic needs. This is because we reached a point where additional spectrum means greater divergence between regions and increased market fragmentation, a similar scenario to the current state of the 5 GHz band.

Consider for example the situation in the US. A potential candidate for Wi-Fi spectrum is the UNII-4 band, a chunk of 75 MHz assigned in 1999 for Dedicated Short Range Communications Service (DSRC) for short-range communication between vehicles and roadside systems. While this band is not heavily used, emerging automotive IoT applications mean greater economic value for this spectrum in the future. TV whitespaces is another candidate but it has limited bandwidth in highly populated areas and has been slow to evolve on a global scale with only 4 countries adopting regulations to date. The 3.5 GHz innovation band is an emerging alternative with 150 MHz of shared spectrum, but this band is licensed in most of the world. In short, it is gets harder to expand spectrum assignments while ensuring harmonization.

The spectrum strategy ought to include a review of regulations to ensure alignment with social-economic objectives. Does LTE operation in unlicensed bands deserve a regulatory review? This is a highly controversial point as evident by the objections raised to the FCC’s review of this issue – in fact an unprecedented step matching an unprecedented market development. Considering how unlicensed LTE can be used, there are legitimate concerns that should be addressed from a regulatory perspective.

Wireless technologies are pervasive. We are on the cusp of even greater proliferation with IoT. Access to unlicensed spectrum will become more contentious in the months and years to come. All good reasons for a comprehensive strategy on access to unlicensed spectrum!

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About Frank Rayal
Telecom industry management consultant.

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