FCC wants to add a new swath of bandwidth to Wi-Fi 6

If approved, a Federal Communications Commission proposal would add the 6GHz band to the unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi 6, making room to support more devices from a single Wi-Fi access point.

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A proposed FCC rule would allow Wi-Fi 6 devices to make unlicensed use of an additional range of wireless spectrum, which would more than quadruple the number of channels available to Wi-Fi routers.

While that might be good news for enterprises seeking higher density Wi-Fi deployments,  current license holders of the 6GHz spectrum are concerned about interference from unlicensed use.

The driving factor, as ever, is the bottomless demand for spectrum caused by the increasing use of wireless just about everywhere, and the FCC’s announcement cites projections from Cisco that say about 60% of worldwide data traffic will move across Wi-Fi links within the next two years. Using the full 6GHz spectrum – all 1,200MHz of it – is part of the Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) standard that can’t be put into use until it is freed up by the FCC. With that spectrum extension in place the standard is known as Wi-Fi 6E, and devices with new silicon would be needed to implement it. (Wi-Fi 6E products are expected to hit shelves by the 2020 holiday season, per PC World.)

“By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi almost by a factor of five,” said FCC chair Ajit Pai in a statement. “This would be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation.”

But the incumbent licensed users of parts of the 6GHz spectrum – which are mostly businesses using microwave links for wireless backhaul and public safety services – aren’t pleased. The Utilities Technology Council is one of several groups that has been critical of earlier proposals to open the 6GHz band to broad-based unlicensed use, saying in response to Wednesday’s announcement that assurances that existing users would be protected from interference are unconvincing.

“We have and will continue to provide the FCC with technical detail demonstrating the very real interference potential from unlicensed use across all parts of the band and the need for thoroughly tested automated frequency coordination (AFC) to protect incumbent users,” the group said in a statement. “While we appreciate the FCC proposing to require AFC for the standard-power access points, these measures must also be applied to all unlicensed devices in the band to prevent interference to mission-critical utility communications systems.”

Farpoint Group principal and Network World contributor Craig Mathias said that it’s not going to be a smooth process, but argues that the opening of 6GHz spectrum is too great an opportunity to ignore.

“Yes, it’s a mess – spectral re-allocations always are,” he said. “[But] I don't see any issues here that can't be addressed, and more unlicensed spectrum is of course always desirable.”

Incumbent users of the 6GHz spectrum are unlikely to see the type of interference they’re particularly worried about, he added, given the nature of the connections currently in use and the proposed safeguards in the new rule that are specifically designed to protect existing networks.

“Point-to-point microwave links operate at fairly high power and use both directional antennas and error-checking protocols to ensure reliability and otherwise deal with typical radio issues beyond interference, like the various forms of fading,” said Mathias. “A nearby Wi-Fi transmitter will be operating at much lower power and use its own signal-integrity-management techniques as well. So - likely no issues in the vast majority of cases, especially if history is any guide.”

The FCC will vote April 23 at an open meeting on whether to make the proposal official.

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