When Richard Bernhardt of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) presented a spectrum update during WISPAPALOOZA 2022 in Las Vegas last month, he asked the audience: Who would like to use the 6 GHz band? Every single hand shot up. And who wants access to it yesterday? Again, the hands of all 250 or so attendees in the room went up.

“They’re very interested in it happening as soon as possible,” he told Fierce.

Bernhardt, senior director, Spectrum and Industry at WISPA, said he’s pleased the FCCs’ Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) recently approved, conditionally, 13 proposed automated frequency coordination (AFC) database systems to develop operations for the 6 GHz band.  

“WISPA is very pleased to see things moving forward” and looks forward to the test and certification phase of the AFC process, Bernhardt said.

Once approved, the AFC systems will allow for much higher power and outdoor use of the 6 GHz band, meaning WISPs can use it as part of their fixed wireless access (FWA) offerings. It’s a big move because currently, they’re relegated to the crowded 2.4 and/or 5 GHz bands.

WISPs also happen to be incumbents in the band that the AFC systems are designed to protect. “We’re both an incumbent and a new unlicensed operator, or will be,” he said.

Incumbents include users of fixed point-to-point links; hundreds of WISPs operate using point-to-point licenses. Fixed point-to-point microwave links also are used by utilities, railroads and operators like AT&T that rely on them primarily for backhaul. 

Bernhardt pointed to the sheer size of the opportunity in the 6 GHz band. By way of comparison, the entire Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, including Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access (GAA), is 150 megahertz.

The 6 GHz band is 1200 megahertz, of which 850 megahertz can be used in standard power or standard power outdoor. The full 1200 can be used for low power indoor and 850 of it can be used in standard power, which is very similar to the 5 GHz Wi-Fi bands, he said.

“It’s really the extension of that,” he said. “If you think about it, 5.8 GHz isn’t that far from the 6 GHz band, so you can get equipment that’s compatible and it’s roughly the same power output,” he said. “The AFC will tell you what power you can use and what frequencies are available.”

The expectation is the AFCs will be set up sometime next year, although exactly when that happens is the subject of debate. It could be as early as the second quarter; or, more likely, the second half of 2023, according to some sources.

Either way, it comes as WISPs face uncertainty about their future since the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) decided areas covered by WISPs with unlicensed spectrum will count as “unserved” for the purposes of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

While exceptions exist and some of that remains in play, more WISPs are seeking solutions that involve licensed wireless, which is more costly and less competitive but if they don’t do that, they risk being overtaken in overbuild situations, he said.

Rivals get government funding to enter markets where WISPs already are adequately serving clients, and that threatens to disrupt their businesses in a big way or put them out of business altogether.

A lot of government funding is going to fiber so WISPs end up pursuing fiber builds and becoming hybrid operators that involve some form of wireless and fiber.

“We’re a lot more efficient and a lot more cost effective and can do a lot of what fiber can do, but we’re not there to replace fiber,” he said. “We’re there to use the right tool.”