AT&T slams FCC’s plans for 6 GHz band

A lot of people praised the FCC for demonstrating its boldness in voting unanimously Thursday to open up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed devices. AT&T’s public policy team was not among them, accusing the agency of putting critical incumbent services at risk.  

“While we support use of this band for Wi-Fi expansion, any new use must protect incumbent services, which in this case includes tens of thousands of microwave links critical to maintaining network infrastructure. This order does not do that,” said Joan Marsh, AT&T EVP of Regulatory & State External Affairs, in a statement.

“By failing to require that new Wi-Fi devices using this band include smart technology that avoids interference, the FCC’s order will allow the introduction of devices that can impair, or even knock out, links in the networks that monitor our electric grid, enable first responders to communicate and provide mobile broadband services to millions of Americans, particularly in rural areas,” she said.

“Even more troubling is the fact that the FCC has no plan to mitigate the interference when it inevitably occurs. Once millions of these new unlicensed devices are released and in use, it will be impracticable, if not impossible, for the FCC to identify and remove specific devices causing interference. Ultimately, it will be public safety, our nation’s critical infrastructure and consumers that will pay the price,” she added.

RELATED: Tech giants challenge AT&T’s assessment of 6 GHz band for unlicensed use

Up until the vote, AT&T had been steadily submitting comments and telling the FCC about its concerns (PDF). The company disclosed (PDF) that it holds 8,138 licenses in the 6 GHz fixed service (FS) bands supporting backhaul for its mobile networks, as well as telecom links for its landline assets.

On the flip side, it's worth noting that JR Wilson, vice president of tower strategy and roaming at AT&T, is chairman of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which cheered the FCC’s decision on 6 GHz. AT&T also happens to be one of the nation’s largest users of Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi came to the rescue when AT&T held the exclusive on the first iPhone that crushed its network’s ability to handle all that traffic way back then.

Wireless operators can use 6 GHz

The FCC’s 6 GHz order puts a lot of emphasis on Wi-Fi in the beginning, as that’s what a lot of the low-powered indoor devices will use. But nothing prohibits AT&T and other licensed operators from using the 6 GHz band as well, either for Wi-Fi offload or technologies like LTE, which they fought hard for via Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) in 5 GHz.

AT&T already uses the 5 GHz band to connect small cells with iPhones in places like New York City and getting 100 Mbps to those phones over unlicensed. “I can see that over time, they might well do the same over 6 GHz” to the extent it’s in areas where there won’t be interference with small cells and incumbent microwave services, said analyst Chris DePuy, founder of the 650 Group. “I imagine they’ll take advantage of it.”

There’s also a good case to be made for mobile operators eventually to use the spectrum for offering fixed wireless access (FWA), according to DePuy. Verizon, for example, already offers a FWA service using the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.

“The 6 GHz spectrum is a good opportunity for the mobile operators to reinvigorate their FWA aspirations, especially in suburban and rural areas where there are few microwave links that are active, so they will be able to use that spectrum,” DePuy said, suggesting that could happen in the next couple years.

It’s not unlike Project Angel, which was an initiative that AT&T Wireless undertook before the company was acquired by Cingular Wireless in 2004. “This is very similar,” DePuy said, where the new 6 GHz spectrum could effectively deliver gigabit class service to residential areas.