FCC unanimously votes to make 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use

The US telecoms regulator didn’t split along partisan lines for once and is giving the country a lot more bandwidth to use for wifi and that sort of thing.

The FCC commissioners have had three weeks to argue the toss over the relative merits of freeing up the whole 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz) for unlicensed use, rather than licensing some of it to mobile operators. We expected them to vote in favour of it, but only by a 3-2 majority as the commissioners affiliated to the Democrat Party performed their standard Pavlovian objection. We were pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong this time, however, with all five giving it the green light.

“By doing this, we are effectively increasing the amount of mid-band spectrum available for wifi by almost a factor of five,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “This will be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation. Wi-Fi NOW’s Claus Hetting, a champion of wifi innovation, said it perfectly: ‘The truth is that this 6 GHz spectrum boost will launch the wifi industry into a new growth trajectory. It will boost wifi’s massive indoor dominance and surely, with the help of emboldened entrepreneurs everywhere, it will bring low-cost wifi (and unlicensed) connectivity to places where it has never been.’”

“While some argue that the unlicensed community doesn’t need the full 1200 megahertz of spectrum, I strongly disagree,” said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. “Instead of doling out unlicensed spectrum in slivers or piecemeal through some dividend mechanism, we have the chance to provide a huge, much needed infusion of wireless currency to American innovators and entrepreneurs, who will undoubtedly amaze us with their ingenuity. Moreover, to obtain unlicensed 5G-like capabilities, 160 megahertz channels, or eventually 320 megahertz under Wi-Fi 7, are absolutely necessary. “

“I suspect this order will not be remembered because it enabled faster Netflix downloads,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “We don’t know what the future holds, but maybe the present pandemic gives us some clues about what’s around the corner. Millions of kids, including mine, are out of school today and stuck at home. Teachers and parents are working hard to keep them learning. Some are turning to video calls to enhance in-home learning, but even that does not capture the feedback between student and teacher that exists in the classroom.”

“With this decision on unlicensed spectrum we do well by the law, we add more permissionless airwaves to the wireless economy, and we expand the democratizing force of having more wifi in more places,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “Amen. Those are good things to do in this crisis and for the days ahead.”

“The 6 GHz spectrum is expected to complement 5G wireless service and unleash a wave of innovation for the Internet of Things,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “It will allow doctors to conduct complex examinations and procedures remotely, enable the training of students and workers using virtual and augmented reality, and spur the next generation of streaming content and gaming.”

All the Commissioners made reference to the importance of wifi in keeping everyone connected while they’re locked down, which probably contributed to this rare unanimity. It’s fair to say wifi is having a good pandemic and the  wifi industry is specially pleased about what this means for realizing the full potential of Wi-Fi 6. We already heard from Wi-Fi NOW via Pai, so here’s what Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, had to say.

“Extending wifi into the 6 GHz spectrum band can provide more wifi capacity than all the other bands put together,” said Rodrigues. “What’s more, using Wi-Fi 6 technology in the extended band (also known as Wi-Fi 6E) will deliver higher speeds, low latency and service levels that are equivalent to 5G networks and be able to support the widespread, low-cost, use of advanced business, industrial and consumer applications. In terms of the capability and capacity of networks, Wi-Fi 6E, will rewrite the rules of what is possible.

“Wi-Fi 6E technology is designed to deliver performance in highly congested places and the next phase of our trials will prove that performance in real world locations. These trials will demonstrate the application and the benefits of the technology in live environments and through this accelerate the adoption and creation of new business opportunities enabled by the opening of the 6GHz spectrum to be used for wifi services.”

Various other wifi stakeholders, including Google and Intel, also applauded the move, so any US operators that feel hardly done by would be well advised to keep their opinions to themselves. Conspiracy theorists, however, are unlikely to do so and it’s surely just a matter of time before the tinfoil hat brigade start foaming about how wifi over 6 GHz gives you coronavirus, or is used for mind control, or some such attention-seeking guff.

US moves to massively increase bandwidth available to wifi

Ajit Pai, the Chairman of US comms regulator FCC, has proposed making 1.2 GHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use.

“From wifi routers to home appliances, Americans’ everyday use of devices that connect to the Internet over unlicensed spectrum has exploded,” said Pai. “That trend will only continue. Cisco projects that nearly 60% of global mobile data traffic will be off-loaded to wifi by 2022. To accommodate that increase in wifi demand, the FCC is aiming to increase the supply of wifi spectrum with our boldest initiative yet: making the entire 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use.

“By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for wifi almost by a factor of five. This would be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation. It would be another step toward increasing the capacity of our country’s networks. And it would help advance even further our leadership in next generation wireless technologies, including 5G.”

Right now wifi uses a few hundred MHz in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. This proposal would enable a ton of extra spectrum contiguous to the 5 GHz band, which would be especially handy for technologies that make use of fatter pipes. The proposal authorizes two different types of unlicensed operations: standard-power in 850-megahertz of the band and indoor low-power operations over the full 1,200-megahertz available.

“The proposed opening of the 6 GHz band to Wi-Fi 6 technology will be a game changer for global wifi, said Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance. “This new band would provide more capacity than all the other wifi bands put together. If approved, it would prove critical for overcrowding on many wifi networks, especially in light of the volumes of bandwidth hungry corporate traffic recently pushed onto home networks due to COVID-19.

“This is one of the reasons we have been working closely with members on initial trials of Wi-Fi 6E. The proposed release of the 6 GHz band would mean that we can generate multi-gigabit speeds and low-latency connections to deliver advanced mobile services to consumers, business and industry. Wi-Fi 6E is already proven in trials to achieve speeds to rival those of advanced 5G mobile networks.”

This proposal will probably be opposed by some US operators as they fancied a bit more 5G licensed spectrum in that band, but they’ve got plenty already so it doesn’t look like Pai is very sympathetic to their plight. You can read more about his thinking in an article he published here. The proposal will be voted on at the FCC’s open meeting on April 23, which will presumably split along partisan lines as usual, meaning the majority Republicans will wave it through.

Wi-Fi 6E trials claim to show what a good idea wifi over 6 GHz band is

The Wireless Broadband Alliance is claiming that recent trials of Wi-Fi 6E over 6 GHz have delivered 5G-like performance.

Broadcom and Intel have been mucking about with the latest flavour of wifi during enterprise trials in San Jose, California. They have apparently hit 2 Gbps of throughput during those trials, as well as a consistent two-millisecond low-latency connection. Since the whole point of 5G is faster speeds at lower latencies, the obvious comparison is being made.

“Opening the 6 GHz spectrum will change the game for Wi-Fi 6 by delivering faster speeds, lower latency, and more reliable connectivity for a wide range of consumer and professional applications,” said Eric Mclaughlin GM of the Wireless Solutions Group at Intel. “Intel is committed to partnering with the industry to drive innovation and enable leadership connectivity experiences, and we look forward to bringing our Wi-Fi 6E products to Intel PC platforms that can harness the full benefits of the most advanced wifi technology available.”

“We are excited to enable real world trials conducted by the WBA that demonstrate the power of Wi-Fi 6E,” said Vijay Nagarajan, VP of Marketing at Broadcom. “Wi-Fi 6E will provide reliable high-throughput, low-latency wireless services by deploying Wi-Fi 6 technologies in the soon-to-be-unlicensed and uncongested 6 GHz band.”

“Wi-Fi 6 networks extended into the 6 GHz spectrum represent a multi-generational shift in wifi services and the user experience,” said Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the WBA. “This trial is an important step in the process of effectively demonstrating the benefits that wifi networks can deliver in the 6 GHz spectrum band. The Wi-Fi 6 standard and the 6 GHz spectrum in combination can play a powerful role to deliver advanced mobile services to consumers, business and industry.”

If you still doubt them, check out this table that shows how much throughput and how little latency you get from wifi at 6 GHz, compared to 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz. It should be noted that only half the amount of spectrum was used by 5 GHz and an eighth the amount by 2.4 GHz in the table, but then again that’s sort of the point of higher frequency bands – there’s more of them.

One of the reasons the WBA and its members keep banging on about 6 GHz for wifi is because it doesn’t want it to be licenced for 5G and thus taken away from it. So much extra spectrum has been freed up for 5G that it seems only fair for wifi to get a bit more too.

Wi-Fi Alliance stakes its claim to the 6 GHz band

The 6 GHz band is expected to be made available in unlicensed form soon and the Wi-Fi Alliance thinks it’s a good fit for Wi-Fi 6.

While wifi most commonly uses the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, it’s always keen for more. With the advent of 5G and the auction of other higher frequency bands for mobile, especially the mid 3 GHz bands, wifi has increasingly come into direct competition with cellular for bandwidth. 5G seems to have a limitless appetite for such stuff, so the Wi-Fi Alliance seems to be planting its flag early for the 6 GHz band.

Specifically this takes the form of a sub-brand called Wi-Fi 6E, which will be used to designate devices that support connectivity over that frequency. The Alliance reckons regulators will offer up this band in unlicensed form fairly soon and it will represent a rare opportunity for the wifi ecosystem to expand its spectrum portfolio.

“6 GHz will help address the growing need for wifi spectrum capacity to ensure wifi users continue to receive the same great user experience with their devices,” said Edgar Figueroa, CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Wi-Fi Alliance is introducing Wi-Fi 6E now to ensure the industry aligns on common terminology, allowing wifi users to identify devices that support 6 GHz operation as the spectrum becomes available.”

“If the regulatory landscape permits, we expect companies to move forward aggressively with products that operate in 6 GHz because they understand the tremendous value brought to their customers by this portion of unlicensed spectrum,” said Phil Solis, Research Director at IDC. “If spectrum is made available early this year, we expect momentum of products that support operation in 6 GHz to ramp very quickly.”

The Alliance expects consumer routers to be the first to use 6 GHz, but its propagation characteristics are presumably pretty rubbish so you wouldn’t want to rely on that spectrum unless you were fairly close to the router and ideally in the same room. It could be handy for mesh wifi nodes though.