The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently moved to free up part of the 5.9 GHz spectrum for “unlicensed mid-band spectrum operations.” The 5.850-5.925 GHz band, a part of the mid-band spectrum, was previously reserved for transportation, notably autonomous vehicles and aircraft communications. However, it will now be free for use by consumer-servicing telecommunications companies, such as those that provide home Wi-Fi services.  

The new rule comes into effect this summer after having been formally approved by the FCC on May 3rd, 2021. Consumer advocates should be cheering this move since telecommunications companies having access to this band of the spectrum will result in quicker and more affordable internet services.

Specifically, the new rule repurposes the lower 45 megahertz of the 5.850-5.925 GHz band (5.9 GHz band) for “unlicensed” companies, a category that includes equipment manufacturers, and tech and telecommunications providers. The FCC maintains control over US airwaves, limiting which individuals and organizations can transmit on specific bands and auctioning off ranges to select bidders.

This FCC ruling will provide immense relief for both consumers and producers. An analysis by the Rand Corporation revealed the ruling would result in “gains to economic welfare in the form of consumer and producer surplus of $82.2 billion to $189.9 billion.” This increase in economic welfare means that producers and consumers will be saving more than they were. Companies will be able to supply connectivity at a lower cost, and consumers will save money, particularly in rural areas.

There is a great disparity between urban and rural American’s abilities to fast and affordable internet. Many rural areas are not connected to very high internet service speeds, notably 25% of rural Americans and 1/3 of those living on tribal lands. Rural consumers who are connected also face higher than average monthly charges, with the most rural Americans nearly$7.00 more per megabit than those in urban areas.

The 5.9 GHz spectrum offers a unique benefit for rural Americans who do not yet have reliable or quick internet access. Allowing unlicensed access to this part of the spectrum will make available more band for providers to utilize, meaning that they can develop 5G and Wi-Fi infrastructure that reaches rural communities more efficiently. This is because 5.9 Ghz is less crowded than other bands, and it also strikes the perfect balance of providing high speeds while supporting communications over long distances.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused more people to have to work from home, and this exacerbated the digital divide, where rural households were left without access to vital internet connectivity. In response, the FCC temporarily opened 5.9 Ghz up for unlicensed use, bringing internet access to more American households. Internet service provider Skynet360 reported that they used the temporary availability to provide over 100 homes in rural Florida with internet access. In addition, Nextlink reported that over 2,000 subscribers were able to upgrade their plans to faster speeds. Permanently opening up the band will mean that providing affordable internet access to more Americans can continue.

Current networks are also overcrowded, posing significant problems for consumers. The FCC has not substantially expanded what spectrum telecommunications companies have available for Wi-Fi use in over two decades, meaning that, with the number of users on the spectrum, current speeds are slower than they would be if more spectrum were available. The urgency for new spectrum is heightened by the demand for 5G, which will only further strain the already limited spectrum and increase the already high demand for mid-band.

The 5.9 Ghz spectrum can also be taken advantage of by Wi-Fi 6, the newest generation of Wi-Fi which promises faster speeds while boasting the ability to connect more devices to a network. On previously available spectrum, Wi-Fi 6 may worsen the overcrowding problem, resulting in slower speeds.

This problem is avoided by 5.9 Ghz, meaning that Wi-Fi 6 will enable more Americans to affordably develop Smart Homes allowing home appliances and security systems to be controlled remotely, usually from a smartphone. Since smart homes rely on many devices being connected to one network at once, the added capacity of 5.9 Ghz will help them operate faster on the average American’s Wi-Fi network.

Freeing up bandwidth is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. While this use of this unlicensed spectrum was important and while the FCC should be applauded for this decision, it is even more important to get more licensed mid-band spectrum to auction for use in 5G networks. This next step will further the great strides underway and lead to faster and more reliable internet services for all Americans.

Caroline Wang contributed to this commentary for the American Consumer Institute.