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made before the World Radio Conference on Rural Wireless Broadband using wireless LAN Technologies

The Impact of Unlicensed Technology and Related Efforts on the Rural Community

Unlicensed devices, which are permitted to operate under Part 15 (47 C.F.R. Part 15) of the Commission’s rules, have the potential to bring new and novel applications to rural America. The current Part 15 rules provide substantial flexibility in the types of unlicensed devices that can be developed, which has led to the large numbers of unlicensed devices currently available today. This huge and growing product base includes devices such as baby monitors, garage door openers, cordless telephones, computer networking equipment, and inventory control systems. Unlicensed transmitters are permitted to operate on almost any frequency, provided they operate at very low power levels and meet relatively tight emission limits in order to avoid interference to licensed radio services. The devices are not permitted to operate in designated “restricted bands” identified in Section 15.205, and are generally prohibited from operating in the TV broadcast bands.

In order to highlight the importance of unlicensed devices to the American lifestyle and economy, the Commission’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis (OSP) and Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) released OSP Working Paper No. 39, “Unlicensed and Unshackled: A Joint OSP-OET White Paper on Unlicensed Devices and Their Regulatory Issues.” The working paper presents a survey of the history of unlicensed wireless devices, their governing regulation, an overview of the market for unlicensed devices, and an analysis of the potential regulatory issues.

The working paper notes that, while unlicensed devices have not generally been used to provide important communication services, advances in the reliability and increases in data handling capability have spurred an interest in incorporating these devices in larger, networked applications. The working paper observes that a growing number of service providers are using unlicensed devices within wireless networks to serve the varied needs of industry, government, and general consumers alike. One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of wireless Internet service providers or “WISPs.” Using unlicensed devices, WISPs around the country are providing an alternative high-speed connection in areas where cable or DSL services have been slow to arrive. Obviously, wireless Internet services would be ideal for rural areas.

The current power limitations placed on unlicensed devices may, in some cases, obviate the option to use them to cover the extended ranges needed to serve rural communities. A more flexible spectrum use policy for rural areas may help to foster a viable last mile solution for delivering Internet services, other data applications, or even video and voice services to underserved or isolated communities. In this vein, the Commission is developing a rule making proceeding to explore whether emerging technologies such as cognitive radio could identify frequencies that are unused in a local area and make those frequencies available for unlicensed use; possibly at higher power levels than are allowed under current rules.

The Commission also has identified a number of areas where unlicensed devices may be helpful in supplying communication services to rural communities. Particularly, at this time, the Commission has under consideration a Notice of Inquiry in ET Docket 03-380 which seeks comments on the feasibility of allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the TV broadcast spectrum at locations and at times when spectrum is not being used. The Notice also seeks comment on the feasibility of permitting unlicensed devices to operate in other bands, such as the 3650-3700 MHz band, at higher power levels higher than other unlicensed transmitters with only the minimal technical requirements necessary to prevent interference to licensed services.

In other activities, the Commission has identified 255 MHz of spectrum in the 5.470 – 5.725 GHz band that it has proposed to make available for unlicensed use. In the Notice of Proposed Rule Making in ET Docket No. 03-122, the Commission has proposed that this spectrum be made available for use by unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices, including Radio Local Area Networks (RLANs) operating under Part 15 of the FCC’s rules. This proposal would increase the spectrum available for U-NII devices by 85%. The Commission stated that the increased available capacity gained from access to the 255 MHz of additional unlicensed spectrum, coupled with the ease of deployment and operational flexibility provided by our U-NII rules, will foster the development of a wide range of new and innovative unlicensed devices and lead to increased wireless broadband access and investment. The Commission further noted that this action advances the policies in the Spectrum Policy Task Force Report, which specifically recommended that additional spectrum be provided for unlicensed use.

Finally, we note that unlicensed technology is not limited to wireless devices. There are also wired unlicensed applications that may prove beneficial to rural communities. To address this issue, the Commission released a Notice of Inquiry in ET Docket No. 03-104 to obtain information on a variety of issues related to Broadband over Power Line (BPL) systems. BPL devices function by using a house’s electrical power lines as a transmission medium to provide high speed communications capabilities by coupling RF energy onto the power line. Because power lines reach almost every community, BPL could play an important role in providing advanced communication services such as Internet, video on demand, and telephony to rural communities. The concept of power line networking has been around for many years. However, new entrants into the market such as Current Technologies, Main.Net, Ambient, Phonex Broadband, and Amperion and industry alliances such as HomePlug, Powerline Communications Association (PLCA) and United Power Line Council (UPLC) are expected to spur renewed interest in the technology. The Commission’s inquiry seeks information and technical data so that we may evaluate the current state of BPL technology and determine whether changes to Part 15 of the Commission’s rules are necessary to facilitate the broader development of this technology.


last reviewed/updated 8/4/10

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