An FCC Chairman’s 20th Anniversary Salute To WiFi

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Who knew in 2008 that wireless internet technology would be an essential way of life for millions of Americans?


WiFi is now two decades old, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai remarked on WiFi’s past, present and future on Tuesday at the Wi-Fi World Congress 2019 in Northern Virginia.

The event saw Pai deliver remarks that, in a now-trademark move, started with a joke.

Noting that the gathering is being held in busy, traffic-snarled Tysons Corner, Va., “a place synonymous with . . . traffic congestion,” he jested, “I get the subtle message you’re sending. You want more spectrum for WiFi. Trust me. We’re working on it.”

Pai noted that, just 20 years after WiFi’s launch, it can be hard to remember what life was like without it.

“For my part, WiFi was a revelation,” Pai recalled. “I was looking to buy a personal computer sometime in 2001. One of the options I noticed was a new Apple laptop that had a built-in chip that allowed you to surf the Internet without being tethered to a wall with a cable. This new thing—’WiFi’—sounded too good to be true! I took the plunge—and never wanted to come up for air. I was amazed that I could download a song or send an email wirelessly from any room of my apartment. Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous nowadays because it’s so commonplace, but back then, this was a big deal.”

This is certainly how WiFi’s pioneers saw it, Pai added.

In his very first minute of Pai’s very first speech as an FCC Commissioner, in 2012 at Carnegie Mellon University, he paid tribute to Professor Alex Hills, who built the world’s first wireless Internet network. Named “Wireless Andrew,” it was the forerunner of today’s WiFi networks.

A year later, Pai met Hills in Palmer, Alaska. “Professor Hills had a feeling, as did I and many others, that WiFi would turbo-charge the Internet,” Pai said. “It sure did. And there is no turning back.”

Pai then took the tone of an American Enterprise Institute-influenced Republican, by suggesting “light-touch” regulatory policy helped foster WiFi’s growth.

“This new way to connect didn’t come from a government regulatory process,” he said. “It was the result of the genius of this industry to find ways to use spectrum that was of little value or limited use to others. The creators of WiFi spun gold from straw.”

This brought attendees to this “obvious” question: What is the FCC doing to make the future of WiFi brighter?

Pai’s answer: a lot!

A March Spectrum Horizons proceeding made more than 21 GHz of spectrum above 95 GHz available for use by unlicensed devices. “This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses,” he said.

Pai said the FCC is also working hard to free up mid-band spectrum. “I know there’s a lot of excitement about what we’re doing in the 6 GHz band—what could be a massive, 1,200-megahertz test bed for innovators and innovation,” he remarked before talking about the 5.9 GHz band.

In the automotive industry, many are now backing a new technological standard, Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X). C-V2X would use standard cellular protocols, such as 4G LTE, to provide direct communications between vehicles, between vehicles and infrastructure like light poles, and between vehicles and others on the road, like cyclists, pedestrians, and road workers. Meanwhile, unlicensed advocates have called for either sharing the band between unlicensed use and automotive communications technologies or reallocating the band entirely for unlicensed.

“Given the swirl of the debate and the vast technological changes that have occurred since the Commission allocated the 5.9 GHz band 20 years ago, I believe that the time has come for the FCC to take a fresh look at this band,” Pai revealed. “We should open up a rulemaking proceeding, seek comment on various proposals for the band’s future, and use the record that we compile to make a final decision on how the band should be allocated.”

What are our choices?

“First, we could maintain the status quo,” Pai said. “Given the history of and outlook for DSRC, I am quite skeptical that this is a good idea. But we shouldn’t rule it out entirely before we even begin a review of the band’s future. Second, we could allocate the 5.9 GHz band for C-V2X specifically or for automotive communications technologies generally. I know that many in the automotive industry are interested in ideas like these, and I believe that they merit thoughtful consideration.”

Then came options “that should be of more interest to the people in this room.”

He said, “We could allow for sharing between unlicensed devices and automotive communications technologies in the lower 45 MHz of the band, while reserving the upper 30 MHz exclusively for vehicle-to-vehicle technologies. We could split the band, with the lower 45 MHz allocated exclusively for unlicensed and the upper 30 MHz allocated exclusively for vehicle-to-vehicle technologies. Or we could allocate the entire 75 MHz band exclusively for unlicensed use.”

What kind of potential are we talking about for the 5.9 GHz band? In November, Pai said, Rand put out a study that said opening up these airwaves for WiFi could add between $60 and $105 billion annually to our nation’s gross domestic product.

“I know that reasonable people may disagree about the future of the 5.9 GHz band,” Pai said. “But that is not a reason to avoid the conversation. Most people of good faith will agree on at least this: We can’t keep kicking this can down the road. This valuable mid-band spectrum is largely lying fallow, and it has been so for two decades now—just as the Internet has gone from dial-up modems to gigabit Wi-Fi. Given this, inertia isn’t a responsible thing for policymakers to indulge. It is time to launch a comprehensive review of the future of the 5.9 GHz band, make a sober assessment of the facts, and then make a timely decision on the best way forward.”