Here’s how Washington is preparing for a future of wireless everything

Ahead of a major government auction of radio spectrum, federal officials have revealed a little bit about their plans for the free and open airwaves that today support technologies like WiFi and Bluetooth, but that could someday serve as the platform for even newer wireless inventions.

Opening up more unlicensed spectrum will pave the way for faster wireless routers and more WiFi hotspots, connected home appliances, faster Internet in coffee shops and fewer dropped calls.

The Federal Communications Commission expects to set aside at least 18 megahertz of spectrum for unlicensed uses in its upcoming broadcast auction. That figure will likely grow depending on how many TV broadcasters participate in the auction by giving up their use of the airwaves, according to senior FCC officials.

The auction, which is slated for 2015, will be one of the FCC's biggest undertakings ever. It involves simultaneously encouraging TV stations to hand over their spectrum to the government, which will compensate the broadcasters before turning around and selling the spectrum to wireless carriers so they can upgrade their LTE service for phones and tablets.

In a proposal unveiled Friday, the FCC suggested taking portions of spectrum that sit unused between tranches of occupied spectrum and reserving it for the public. That spectrum, which is ordinarily used as a buffer to prevent interference between signals traveling over similar parts of the airwaves, could add up to between 12 MHz and 20 MHz.

Another 6 MHz may be reclaimed from a part of the radio spectrum that's currently used for medical devices and radio astronomy. To prevent those existing occupants from clashing with devices using unlicensed airwaves, the FCC is thinking about setting up "exclusion zones" that would isolate the two.

What's still unclear is how much more spectrum the FCC will add to that chunk of free and open airwaves. While advocates of more unlicensed spectrum might love to see the commission gather up all the spectrum from participating broadcasters, then take a portion of it and declare it off-limits to wireless companies, that doesn't seem like what's going to happen. Instead, the FCC will take each 6 MHz TV channel, chop it up into a 5 MHz block, and divert what's left toward unlicensed spectrum.

Whether that leads to a significant amount of unlicensed spectrum will depend on how many broadcasters volunteer. And because TV operators are loath to telegraph their business plans, that's not  likely to be clear until  we get closer to the auction.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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