During the Federal Communications Commission’s monthly meeting today, it ratified unlicensed use of the 6GHz radio frequency spectrum in the USA. This decision opens the way for the proposed Wi-Fi 6E standard to move forward.
Industry giants Intel and Broadcom began planning for this move two years ago. Broadcom released its first Wi-Fi 6E chipset in February, targeted at mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Intel hasn’t released any actual products using it yet, but in discussions with Ars, an Intel rep confirmed that they’re on the way.
Intel’s spokesperson said that the company’s own working prototype devices were part of the presentations originally given to the FCC to facilitate the decision-making process and described Intel’s and Broadcom’s work on devices prior to the FCC’s decision as a risky but rewarding two-year investment on both companies’ part.
The rules so far
Although the FCC was widely expected to unanimously ratify unlicensed use of 6GHz spectrum in general, the associated usage rules were less certain. Until today, the 6GHz spectrum was for licensed use only—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already in use.
Licensed use of the 6GHz spectrum includes point-to-point microwave backhaul (used by commercial wireless providers), telephone and utility communication, and control links. It also includes Cable Television Relay Links—which are mobile links used by newscasters doing onsite live reporting—and radio astronomy.
The truly excellent news for Wi-Fi 6E backers—and future users—is that the FCC has ratified unlicensed use of the entire 1.2GHz spectrum for low-power indoor devices. Separating unlicensed outdoor and high-powered usage from indoor and low power allows for the maximum utility of spectrum in the most common (and most crowded) Wi-Fi environments, while preserving the utility of incumbent licensed users.
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s statement this morning discusses this in greater detail, making it clear that Automatic Frequency Control—the type of technology that limits use of 5GHz on DFS frequencies in modern Wi-Fi—will not be required for most devices on the 6GHz band:
All of these enormous benefits can only be realized by authorizing both standard-powered operations and LPI devices, which unlike the higher-power systems do not need an AFC.
While there has been much debate about whether LPI use can cause interference to fixed networks, electronic news gathering, and other incumbent uses, the studies in the record and the analysis of the talented professionals in the Office of Engineering and Technology are quite clear: unlicensed use—with the technical rules set in this item—can be introduced without causing harmful interference.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks points out that even those who aren’t early adopters of Wi-Fi 6E technology stand to benefit, since those who do will compete less for available 5GHz spectrum:
Even for those who can’t afford the new equipment that will take advantage of the new spectrum and the latest iteration of WiFi, speeds for their devices should increase as existing WiFi traffic moves to the new spectrum… Wi-Fi channels within their homes [will] become less congested, and data flows more freely.
The FCC’s vote to ratify unlicensed 6GHz use was bi-partisan and unanimous, with supporting statements made by organizations including the Internet &Television Association, Charter, Comcast, Public Knowledge, and the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Still to come
With general use of 6GHz secured, the FCC expects to see tremendous offloads of current mobile traffic to local Wi-Fi—Commissioner O’Rielly cited a Wi-Fi Forward assessment when claiming that 76 percent of all mobile traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi in the next two years.
Not all of O’Rielly’s suggestions were ratified today. In particular, the commission is still deliberating extensions to allow Very Low Power (VLP) devices to operate outdoors without use of automated frequency control. This would encourage the use of 6GHz for wearable devices, such as VR headsets and smartwatches, which would only need extremely short-range connections to linked devices.
With usable rules for unlicensed 6GHz spectrum use defined, we broadly expect to see Wi-Fi 6E devices beginning to become available to consumers in late 2020 or early 2021.
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