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FCC Set To Approve Wi-Fi Rule Revamp

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to approve modifications in the rules governing spread spectrum technologies used by fixed wireless (Wi-Fi) operators, amendments which open the door to new systems and improve the transmission of broadband data.

It's expected the rule changes to Part 15, three years in the making, will give wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) a much-needed boost in deploying effective high-speed Internet systems in their communities.

Part 15 rules govern the equipment specifications of systems running on the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band, one of several "free" bands open for public use -- others include the 915 MHz and 5.7 GHz bands.

Because the spectrum is available for anyone to utilize, the FCC set up rules to ensure equipment running in the "free" bands don't interfere with adjacent licensed bands. One of those rules was establishing the two spread spectrum technologies allowed to operate in the unlicensed band: direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) and frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS). By their very nature, the two technologies cause very little interference problems.

Part 15 rules determine what makes a spread spectrum technology truly spread spectrum. For example, the rules stipulate a minimum number of hops a FHSS signal must take on its 2.4 GHz route.

FHSS systems in the 2.4 GHz spectrum will get a boost in the Part 15 revamp, lowering the minimum number of hops to 15, provided the system uses no more than 125 milliwatts (mW) of power.

DSSS systems also get a break in the new rules, with the elimination of the processing gain requirement of 10db. Adopted 11 years ago to prevent equipment makers from making systems that used more bandwidth power than needed, the industry has matured to a point where the requirement might not be necessary any more, the FCC concludes.

The Part 15 amendment opens the 2.4 GHz spectrum to other technologies, which technically aren't spread spectrum technologies but have the same characteristics.

The FCC is set to remove that restriction to allow deployment of the new systems almost immediately, provided they obey the rules and meet FCC certification standards. Last May, the FCC issued a waiver to manufacturers who wanted to get their equipment certified before the amendment is formally adopted, though commissioners blocked the application of a Wi-LAN, Inc., technology, wideband orthogonal frequency division multiplexing.

Part 15 rules for spread spectrum systems have been in effect for more than 15 years, and have undergone several amendments to incorporate new technologies benefiting the wireless community. Recent advances with 802.11b and Bluetooth products show the unlicensed band will continue to thrive in tomorrow's wireless world.

"The Commission's spread spectrum rules have been a tremendous success," reads the further notice of proposed rule making (FNPRM). "A wide variety of devices have been introduced under these rules for business and consumer use including cordless telephones and computer local area networks (LANs)."

The FNPRM was issued last year to garner "last-minute" opinions from interested parties, a process that's lasted almost a year to the date. The amendment was first initiated in November, 1999.

The FCC has been treading water in the unlicensed band debate, as more and more companies (with the millions and billions they've invested) go public on the airwaves. FCC Chairman Michael Powell told attendees at a recent convention 802.11 was heading for a "meltdown" as the playing field quickly filled up with competitors.