FCC sets all 1,200 MHz in motion for 6 GHz unlicensed

The Wi-Fi community is finally getting a much-needed infusion in the form of spectrum in the 6 GHz band.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that he’s circulating draft rules permitting unlicensed devices to operate in the 6 GHz band, making all 1,200 megahertz of spectrum available for unlicensed. While he had signaled his intent to do that last year, some groups, namely CTIA, continued to lobby for a portion of the band to be set aside for licensed 5G services.

In his announcement, Pai said taking this step would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi almost by a factor of five. The band is currently used by microwave services that are used to support utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul, but as Pai noted last year, studies have shown that sharing the band is feasible and can put massive amounts of new spectrum into the hands of consumers.  

“Ensuring necessary unlicensed spectrum access is critical for Wi-Fi – which now more than ever – keeps us connected, supports our communications infrastructure, and delivers major economic benefits,” said the Wi-Fi Alliance said in a statement. “Wi-Fi Alliance and its members are ready to deliver new 6 GHz use cases and urge the commission to support the chairman’s proposal.”

Wi-Fi advocates say the bands currently used for Wi-Fi – the 2.4 and 5 GHz – do not offer enough to meet projected demands. They also say that the 6 GHz band offers super-wide channels, which are needed to carry traffic from a bunch of devices simultaneously, as well as to increase speed. Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Apple are eyeing the band for new devices, including wearables and wireless AR/VR headsets.

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”Consumer advocates commend the FCC for its pathbreaking spectrum-sharing order,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute, in a statement. “Opening the entire 6 GHz band for low-power, gigabit-fast Wi-Fi in every home, school, and enterprise will accelerate the availability and affordability of next-generation applications and services nationwide. Even the fastest fiber broadband internet service is useless for consumers without the Wi-Fi spectrum needed to connect all of our laptops, tablets, and smartphones.”

Multi-year effort

Chris Szymanski, director, Product Marketing & Government Affairs at Broadcom, has been working closely on the nitty-gritty details in the proceeding on the part of big tech companies, which include not only Broadcom but Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel and more.

“This has been a really long road,” actively working with industry partners for the past four and half years, he said. “This is a big deal for the future of American connectivity.”

Szymanski happens to be hunkering down with a family of five, so understands all too well how Wi-Fi in the home is being taxed by kids doing schoolwork and professionals like himself conducting Webex meetings with peers. That’s creating real time, “no lag” demands on video. “It gets challenging at times,” he said.

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

Broadcom already announced Wi-Fi 6E devices for routers and smartphones for 6 GHz. (Wi-Fi 6 also works in the other bands.) Vijay Nagarajan, vice president at the Mobile Connectivity Division at Broadcom, said the expectation is that consumer products using the 6 GHz band could hit the market by the second half of this year.

“We’re stoked about what the 6 GHz band can do,” he told Fierce. “Imagine getting 2 Gbps on your phone, that’s something Wi-Fi 6E and 6 GHz can accomplish,” as well as produce latency on the order of 2 milliseconds or less, which is why it’s so attractive for things like AR/VR.

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Qualcomm also said it’s ready to go with a full suite of Wi-Fi 6E products spanning mobile, personal computing, automotive and networking using the 6 GHz band. “The 6 GHz band offers unmatched opportunities for Wi-Fi, unlocking the full potential and power of the next generation of high-performance devices,” said Rahul Patel, senior vice president and general manager, connectivity and networking, at Qualcomm Technologies, in a statement.

If adopted, the FCC's draft Report and Order would authorize 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 in the 6 GHz band. An automated frequency coordination (AFC) system would prevent standard power access points from operating where they could cause interference to incumbent services. 

The full commission will vote on the draft rules at the next open meeting on April 23.