Licensing WLAN Technologies

Editor’s Note:


The following information was reported in ITU Trends in Telecommunications Reform – 2004/05:  Licensing in an Era of Convergence (Geneva:  ITU, 2004).


In many countries, spectrum used by current 802.11 WLAN technologies in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands is exempt from licensing requirements.  But this is not universal – and in many cases, new WLAN technologies, such as the 802.16 (or “WiMax”) standard, operate in spectrum bands that are subject to more divergent licensing regimes.[1]  


Whether these spectrum bands should be licence-exempt may depend on how regulators view competing policy concerns at play in each country.  In developing countries with low teledensities, WLAN technologies may enable access to both basic and value-added services in rural areas.  If regulators decide not to make such spectrum licence-exempt, then they might consider an incentive-based fee regime that encourages deployment of WLAN technologies in underserved areas. In such a case, an area-based fee structure should be avoided since this type of fee structure would discourage deployment of WLAN technology in under-populated rural areas.  Other regulatory levers to promote WLAN deployment in rural areas include:


·  exempting operators from universal service fund contributions (and even giving such operators subsidies from a universal service fund);


·  exempting operators from import duties on equipment;


· exempting operators from performance guarantees or quality-of-service requirements; and


·  exempting basic services in underserved areas from value-added taxes (VATs).


In more developed countries, where universal access requirements have already been satisfied by incumbent operators, WLAN technologies present different policy issues.  In such countries, WLAN technologies may be perceived as a competitive threat to 3G licensees that, in many cases, have paid substantial amounts for their licences.


Handsets that allow for “voice over Wi-Fi” are currently coming to market.  The resolution of roaming issues involving WLAN services will soon allow users a significant degree of mobility.  There are divergent views on whether 3G licensees deserve some kind of competitive or regulatory protection for their investments in licence fees and network development.  For example, regulators could attempt to charge WLAN operators substantial licence fees or limit the extent to which they can provide mobile services.  This issue certainly appears likely to provoke further discussion as WLAN services gain broader market acceptance.[2]   



[1] Some vendors have already released commercial products based on the draft IEEE 802.16 standards (these standards have not yet been finalized) that operate within the 3.5 GHz band.  See, for example, news releases by Alvarion at regarding its BreezeMAX product and the use of this product in the national broadband wireless network that is currently being built in Argentina by Millicom Argentina.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of the possible impact of wireless network technologies on universal access and the steps that regulators can take to encourage deployment of such technologies, see Michael L. Best, “The Wireless Revolution and Universal Access”, Trends in Telecommunications Reform 2003, ITU 2003.



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