Scuffle over 6 GHz band raises questions about Wi-Fi 6E, FWA

Back in April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to free up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, earning cheers from Wi-Fi and fixed wireless groups. But more than two years on, scuffles between industry associations representing cable, broadcasting, utility and public safety interests have left the future of the 6 GHz band in limbo.

Dell’Oro Group VP Jeff Heynen told Fierce the spectrum is “extremely important to cable operators and operators in general saying we will give you the fastest service not only to your home but within your home” via Wi-Fi technology. Indeed, cable and fiber providers alike have talked up the importance of Wi-Fi in delivering a better customer experience and the faster speeds enabled by their network upgrades. Earlier this year, Comcast rolled out a new Wi-Fi 6E router which it heralded as the first capable of supporting symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds. Wi-Fi 6E is the first generation of Wi-Fi technology to incorporate the 6 GHz band.

The FCC already overcame a major hurdle when a U.S. Court of Appeals in December 2021 upheld its decision to allocate the band for unlicensed use after AT&T challenged the agency’s designation. But plenty of other debates have raged on.

When the FCC adopted its 6 GHz order, it approved operation of low-power indoor devices in the band and opened a proceeding to develop rules for an Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system for high-power devices.

But the same month as the court ruling, the Utilities Technology Council, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and several other utilities groups petitioned the FCC to revisit its rules for the operation of low-power indoor devices (such as routers). They argued the power-levels adopted by the Commission in its original order would allow for harmful interference with licensed microwave systems used by utilities and public safety agencies for critical communications. Among other things, they pushed for low-power devices to be governed by an AFC. The groups also asked the FCC to stay implementation of its 6 GHz order opening the band for unlicensed use until the regulator had ruled on its petition.

That’s just one front in the battle over the 6 GHz band. NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have spent the past several months sparring over whether the FCC should adopt proposals to increase the power limit for low-power devices and authorize a new class of very low power devices. NCTA represents the country's cable industry while NAB advocates on behalf of broadcasters, who currently use the 6 GHz band to transmit video from portable cameras back to a studio for processing.

Last month, the NAB suggested the FCC should “seek comment on the co-existence of licensed and unlicensed operations in the 6 GHz band after 50 million devices have been sold in the U.S., with a goal of developing recommendations to the Commission on expanded operations one year after that trigger.”

NCTA scoffed at that proposal, arguing last week that “pausing the deployment of 6 GHz Wi-Fi and other unlicensed devices would rob consumers of the benefits of better Wi-Fi service and needlessly forestall further progress.”

Heynen said the debate over the 6 GHz band as well as the high cost of early Wi-Fi 6E gear could impact the number of units shipped. In June, Dell’Oro noted that while sales of Wi-Fi 6E gear rose in Q1 2022, adoption remained behind the rates seen with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 Wave 2 devices. However, Heynen said he expects the effects here to be relatively insignificant since consumer devices can continue to be sold and operate in low-power mode unless the FCC changes its rules.

According to Heynen, though, the scuffle over 6 GHz is likely to have bigger implications for fixed wireless operators who want to use the band to deliver high-speed broadband services. For instance, Resound Networks and Nextlink, two of the big winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, recently trumpeted FWA trials which used unlicensed 6 GHz spectrum to achieve gigabit speeds.

While the 6 GHz band has been heralded as a key enabler for Wi-Fi 6E, Heynen said ultimately by the time all the issues on the table have been worked out, the industry will likely already be in the early stages of work on Wi-Fi 7.