All wireless gadgets compete on a limited amount of available space in the available spectrum, Rabaey said.
And your Bluetooth devices operate on just a fraction of that spectrum, he said, between 2.4 GHz and 2.8 GHz. That means your headphones are competing with most other wireless devices, including Wi-Fi routers, cordless phones and even odd appliances like microwave ovens and cheaply made power adapters.
That frequency range — along with a handful of others — are considered “unlicensed bands,” Rabaey said, meaning anyone is allowed to broadcast on them without FCC approval. But there are several other frequencies that are licensed, he said, meaning they’re owned by private companies.
“You’re not allowed to transmit in AT&T’s band,” Rabaey said. “That’s illegal.”
But for years, there’s been a push to open up more frequencies for public use, said Neil Grace, a spokesman for the FCC, in an email. “The FCC has been aggressively working to push more unlicensed spectrum into the commercial marketplace,” Grace said.
Last month, the FCC voted to make spectrum above 95 GHz available for unlicensed use, Grace said. And last year, the FCC proposed changing how frequencies in the 6 GHz range can be used, hoping to open some licensed space up for public use — or possibly sharing it. That’s on top of 5 GHz opening up for commercial use over the last decade.
While Bluetooth doesn’t operate at those higher frequencies which require more power, opening up those ranges to the public could help alleviate traffic overall, Rabaey said. And as wireless technology continues to advance and grow in popularity, the FCC may need to do more to keep traffic at manageable levels, he said.
“We’re at the cusp period right now,” Rabaey said. “If suddenly all your devices become useless because they’re overloaded and you don’t get any traffic, people are going to be very unhappy.”