Washington’s Wi-Fi Friday: FCC, Senate push for more Wi-Fi in schools, more unlicensed airwaves

Wi-Fi was a big topic of discussions in multiple institutions of our federal government on Friday. Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a plan today that would put $2 billion in federal dollars to work building Wi-Fi is classrooms and public libraries. Meanwhile over on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senators Mark Rubio (R-Fla.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that could help open up new spectrum for Wi-Fi networks.

Wheeler is calling for new rules to the government’s E-Rate program, which was established 18 years ago to bring internet connectivity to schools and libraries. The program largely accomplished its mission, delivering broadband access to 94 percent of U.S. classrooms and 98 percent of public libraries, according to the FCC. But when the rules were originally written, they didn’t anticipate the wireless connections most devices would need to make that final hop to the internet.

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

Source: Shutterstock / iconmonstr

Under the current rules, it’s very difficult to allocate E-rate dollars for Wi-Fi networks — only five percent of schools and one percent of libraries have received E-rate funds for wireless networking. The new rules, however, would “close this Wi-Fi gap,” according to Wheeler. $1 billion in E-Rate funds would be earmarked for Wi-Fi in 2015 and an additional $1 billion in 2016.

Over on the Hill, Rubio and Booker introduced the Wi-Fi Innovation act, which would direct the FCC to investigate opening up 75 MHz (5850-5925MHz) in the upper licensed band for commercial Wi-Fi, sharing it with existing government and private users.

The big issue in that band is that it’s designated for intelligent vehicle systems and will be the future home of the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure networks that will link our cars and highways together. The Obama administration first proposed opening up the band — and several others — for shared use last year, and in general the government is on a big kick to open up hundreds of new megahertz for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed uses.

The automotive industry isn’t too hot on the idea of a shared band, though. The administration may soon put out new rules mandating inter-vehicle networking in future cars, the idea being that cars can drive more safely and traffic can flow more efficiently if they can communicate and coordinate.

Vehicle networking technologies developed by Cohda Wireless would let cars "see" around corners

Vehicle networking technologies developed by Cohda Wireless would let cars “see” around corners

Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an auto industry group, put out a statement saying there is no proven technical solution that guarantees that commercial Wi-Fi wouldn’t interfere with those vehicle networks.

“ITS America supports the collaborative effort, which is already underway, to explore whether a technical solution exists that would allow Wi-Fi devices to operate in the 5.9 GHz band without interfering with these critical safety applications,” ITSA President and CEO Scott Belcher said in a statement. “But this process should be allowed to proceed without arbitrary deadlines, restrictive parameters or political pressure that could influence the outcome.”