FCC urged to test for 'dangerous' interference from Wi-Fi 6E

The wireless networks of utilities, emergency responders, and transit authorities could be affected by Wi-Fi that uses the 6GHz frequency band, a watchdog association says.

A distributed network of wireless connections spans a cityscape.
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The National Spectrum Management Association this week warned the Federal Communications Commission that Wi-Fi 6E could cause potentially dangerous interference in networks used by first responders, utilities and others if the FCC doesn’t perform“real-world testing on its automated frequency control systems.

NSMA argued in an open letter to the commission that testing facilities are already available, specifically at the Idaho National Labs spectrum test bed, and that such studies should be peer-reviewed and transparent.

“The peer-review process provides the ability to validate proposed designs, gather empirical evidence and avoid subjecting the nation’s infrastructure to experimentation,” the group said in its letter. “A variety of (i) best-case and (ii) worst-case scenarios, as defined by the incumbent and the unlicensed parties, are recommended for ensuring the tests reflect all conditions of special concern to interested parties.”

The letter cited the controversy earlier this year between airlines and telecom operators over interference between new 5G services and older avionics equipment used for instrument landings as the type of headache that could be avoided through fuller testing. The issue involved use of what is known as C-band frequencies and was resolved by an agreement between the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The current discussion is about use of the 6GHz frequency band for Wi-Fi and whose incumbent uses include "utility management, state police networks, national mobile networks, medical transport, medical facilities connectivity, wireless and wireline backbone," according to the NSMA.

The association’s concerns aren’t without merit, according to Gartner Research director analyst Bill Menezes. Tech companies with major business interest in Wi-Fi wouldn’t have come up with the AFC system if they didn’t believe the possibility of interference was real.

That said, the paucity of high-powered 6GHz-capable Wi-Fi devices currently on the market, combined with the Wi-Fi industry’s strong technological track record on this type of issue, means that the current threat to emergency communications and the like is minimal, according to Menezes.

“If it works as well as the systems that are already in the Wi-Fi technical specs, it’s a non-issue,” he said. “[NSMA] is talking about outdoor environments, and [Wi-Fi] 6E is only just starting to trickle out indoors.”

Nevertheless, the possibility of another fiasco like the one between the FAA and the FCC is likely to prompt the Wi-Fi industry, and by extension, the FCC, to take some action on testing, even if it’s not precisely what the NSMA asked for in its letter.

“I think it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar scenario as what played out with [C-band] if there’s enough pressure brought,” said Menezes. “It wouldn’t be surprising to see the vendors take a role in showing that they care about it and want to do something to address the situation.”

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