Indiana Law Journal

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Citation

98 Indiana Law Journal 527 (2023)


Wi-Fi technology has become a necessary foundation of modern economic and cultural life. This Article explains its history. Specifically, it argues that Wi-Fi owes its existence and widespread adoption to federal policy choices that have been underexplored in the literature. Wi-Fi’s development is often portrayed as an unexpected and lucky accident following the FCC’s initial decision in the 1980s to allow more unlicensed and experimental uses. This view, however, obscures the more fundamental role that federal policy played. For one, the rise of modern Wi-Fi was the product of a series of policy decisions spanning decades. In addition, the FCC’s policy design itself is also an underappreciated part of Wi-Fi’s story. These policies were (eventually) crafted in ways that maximized innovation and leveraged the generative power of the unlicensed spectrum “commons.” Specifically, the policy designs featured technical rules that lowered entry costs by being administratively simple and generic and by rejecting specific technological requirements despite incumbent pressure. Understanding this history has implications for modern spectrum policy debates as well. In particular, it helps illustrate why Wi-Fi succeeded while other efforts to encourage unlicensed technologies have failed. It also provides normative justification for the FCC’s most recent efforts to significantly increase unlicensed spectrum.