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An Attack on WiFi Spectrum

A little over a year ago, the FCC approved the use of 1,200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for public use—for new WiFi. WiFi is already the most successful deployment of spectrum ever. A year ago, Cisco predicted that by 2022 that WiFi will be carrying more than 50% of global IP traffic.

These are amazing statistics when you consider that WiFi has been limited to using 70 MHz of spectrum in the 2.4 GHz spectrum band and 500 MHz in the 5 GHz spectrum band. The additional 1,200 MHz of spectrum will vastly expand the capabilities of WiFi. WiFi performance was already slated to improve due to the introduction of WiFi 6 technology. Adding the new spectrum will drive WiFi performance to a new level. The FCC order adds seven 160 MHz channels to the WiFi environment (or alternately adds fifty-nine 20 MHz channels. For the typical WiFi environment, such as a home in an urban setting, this is enough new channels that big bandwidth devices ought to be able to grab an entire 160 MHz channel. This is going to increase the performance of WiFi routers significantly by allowing homes or businesses to separate devices by channel to avoid interference.

One minor worry about the 6 GHz band is that it isn’t being treated the same everywhere. China has decided to allocate the entire 6 GHz spectrum band to 5G. Europe has allocated only 500 MHz for WiFi, with the rest going to 5G. Other places like Latin America have matched the US allocation and are opting for a greatly expanded WiFi. This means that future WiFi devices won’t be compatible everywhere and will vary by the way the devices handle the 6 GHz spectrum. That’s not the ideal situation for a device maker, but this likely can be handled through software in most cases.

The GSMA, which is the worldwide association for large cellular carriers, is lobbying for the US to allow 6 GHz to be used for 5G. They argue that since the 6 GHz spectrum is available to the public that cellular carriers ought to be able to use it like anybody else. They’d like to use it for License Assisted Access (LAA), which would allow the cellular carriers to use the spectrum for cellular broadband. If allowed, cellular traffic could flood the spectrum in urban areas and kill the benefits of 6 GHz for WiFi.

This is not the first time this issue was raised. The cellular industry lobbied hard to be able to use LAA when the FCC approved 5 GHz spectrum for WiFi. Luckily, the FCC understood the huge benefits of improved WiFi and chose to exclude cellular carriers from using the spectrum.

It would be a huge coup for cellular carriers to get to use the 6 GHz spectrum because they’d get it for free at a time where they’ve paid huge dollars for 5G spectrum. The FCC already heard these same arguments when they made the 6 GHz decision, so hopefully, the idea goes nowhere.

I talk to a lot of ISPs that tell me that poor WiFi performance is to blame for many of the perceived problems households have with broadband. Inefficient and out-of-date routers along with situation where too many devices are trying to use only a few channels is causing many of the problems with broadband. The 6 GHz WiFi spectrum will bring decades of vastly improved WiFi performance. It’s something that every homeowner will recognize immediately when they connect a properly configured WiFi router using the 6 GHz spectrum.

For now, there are not many devices that are ready to handle the new WiFi spectrum and WiFi 6 together. Some cellphones are now coming with the capability, and as this starts getting built into chips, it will start working for laptops, tablets, PCs, and smart televisions. But homes will only see the real advantage over time as they upgrade WiFi routers and the various devices.

Interestingly, improved WiFi is a direct competitor for the cellular carriers in the home. The carriers have always dreamed of being able to sell subscriptions for homes to connect our many devices. WiFi allows for the same thing with just the cost of buying a new router. It would be an obvious boon to cellular carriers to both kill off the WiFi competitor while getting their hands on free spectrum.

Hopefully, the FCC will reject this argument as something that has already been decided. The GSMA argues that 5G will bring trillions of dollars in benefits to the world—but it can still do that without this spectrum. The benefit of improved WiFi has a huge value as well.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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