FCC ready to open up 6GHz spectrum to Wi-Fi traffic

New bandwidth will improve speed and support expansion of IoT and AI projects.

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The Federal Communications Commission is ready to add more bandwidth to the Wi-Fi spectrum for the first time since 2003 by opening up the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. 

The proposed rules would provide contiguous spectrum blocks to accommodate 14 additional 80 MHz channels and seven additional 160 MHz channels.  The chairman's draft rules will be voted on by the commission on April 23.

Wi-Fi 6 can be up to four times faster than previous Wi-Fi standards, which will improve the performance of high-bandwidth applications including voice, video, and collaboration software.

Wi-Fi contributed $500 billion in economic value to the US in 2018, and that number is expected to rise to $993 billion by 2023, according to Cisco.

"Wi-Fi has become the most important wireless technology for American consumers and businesses, and is projected to contribute almost $1 trillion in economic value to the United States by 2023," vice president of wireless standards and strategy at Aruba, Chuck Lukaszewski, told ZDNet.

Rahul Patel, senior vice president and general manager of connectivity for Qualcomm Technologies, said opening up this 6GHz bandwidth is the equivalent of adding a new freeway with as many or more lanes as the current road.

"TV screens, phones, cameras for security systems, garage door openers—they all connect over Wi-Fi," he said. "This expansion is a significant value proposition in terms of robustness to extend to support even more devices."

SEE: WI-FI 6 (802.11AX): A cheat sheet (free PDF)

Patel said that Qualcomm has been working with the FCC for several years to lay the groundwork for this change. Once the new rules about the 6GHz spectrum are in place, the next step will be to establish interoperability standards, test, and set benchmarks.

Broadcom government affairs director Chris Szymanski told CNET that this is one of the most heavily studied proceedings that he has seen with thousands of pages of technical studies.

Currently, utility companies, public safety organizations, and telecommunications companies use the 6GHz spectrum. This licensed traffic will now share the bandwidth with unlicensed Wi-Fi traffic.
 
Jeff Campbell, vice president of technology policy at Cisco, said that the new guidance will set technical rules to avoid interference between the existing and new users.

Devices with Wi-Fi 6E branding will start showing up once regulatory approvals around the world are finalized. Wi-Fi 6E devices will take advantage of these wider channels and additional capacity to deliver greater network performance and support more Wi-Fi users at once, even in dense environments, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance

The alliance is working on interoperability testing for Wi-Fi 6E that will deliver benefits to Wi-Fi users once the spectrum is available. The Wi-Fi 6E label identifies devices that will offer the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, including higher performance, lower latency, and faster data rates.

Patel said that when newer devices move to the 6GHz spectrum, that will open up space on the legacy spectrum for older devices. He added that Qualcomm will make product announcements over the next few months about new products that are Wi-Fi 6 compatible.

Devices that currently support Wi-Fi 6 include Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20, Samsung Note 10, iPhone 11, 11 Pro, Pro Max, new iPhone SE, newest iPad Pros, newest Dell XPS, Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. The first Wi-Fi 6 routers came out at the end of 2019 and more will be on the market soon.

Connectivity to support IoT and AI

Campbell said the new bandwidth will allow for gigabit Wi-Fi in some locations and support the growth of IoT efforts in the manufacturing, mining, agricultural, and healthcare sectors.
 
"If you are running a highly automated factory, you might have a lot of data moving around as well as video surveillance and with higher capacity and throughput from 6GHz, Wi-Fi will be able to do that," he said.

By 2025, Cisco said the number of connected IoT devices is expected to exceed 41 billion globally, and the majority of those will be wirelessly connected.

 Wi-Fi 6 completed successful tests in late 2019 at an aerospace company in the UK. Wi-Fi 6 is expected to  provide better performance with multiple devices all competing for attention on the same network. That makes it ideal in factories and other settings with IoT devices and other equipment that all need significant bandwidth. 

The new bandwidth also will support artificial intelligence work focused on analyzing data from video streams.

"Those projects produce lots of data at high rates in real time, and to do that you'll need more bandwidth," he said.

Campbell said that for consumers the transition will be transparent over time as new 6GHz devices enter the market. Highly specialized users will upgrade endpoints and devices when it makes most sense for the business.

The FCC has proposed a related change to address how very low-power devices could operate across the 6 GHz band to support high data rate applications. This includes high-performance, wearable, augmented reality and virtual reality devices. This other new rule proposes to make a contiguous 1,200-megahertz block of spectrum available for the development of new high-speed, short-range devices and on power levels and other technical and operational measures to avoid causing interference to incumbent services.

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Image: Andrii Panchyk, Getty Images/iStockphoto