In April 2020, US telecoms regulator the FCC circulated draft rules permitting unlicensed devices to operate in the 6GHz band, a move initially applauded by consumer electronics firms, wireless broadband and portable device manufacturers for ushering in the age of Wi-Fi 6E – but these bodies are now warning of potential threats and delays to the roll-out of technology and services using the new standard.
On 6 April 2020, FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed rules would make 1,200MHz of spectrum available for use for unlicensed devices, a move that would share the spectrum with incumbent licensed services under rules crafted to protect the latter and to support both wireless operation types.
US businesses had lobbied the FCC for such regulation, trying to persuade the commission that such a large unlicensed allocation with seven 160MHz channels would have a dramatic impact on a number of industries.
The new standard could potentially bring nearly six times the total capacity in both 2.4 and 5 GHz, seven contiguous 160 MHz channels and less interference from legacy Wi-Fi devices.
This is said to translate into multigigabit Wi-Fi speeds and more devices performing optimally on a Wi-Fi network at once, supporting high-data-rate applications, including high-performance, wearable, augmented reality and virtual reality devices in use cases such as remote education, telemedicine, remote work, and entertainment. The net result was described as a watershed moment for innovation that would no less than supercharge connectivity.
Yet the FCC has now been the target of further lobbying by several parties, asking that it immediately pause any additional equipment certification approvals for the 6 GHz unlicensed low-power indoor device pending the outcome of more testing and further review to demonstrate that unlicensed devices can coexist with incumbent fixed-microwave licensees in the 6 GHz band.
Somewhat alarmed, the US Consumer Technology Association (CTA) has submitted a letter to the FCC, asking it to ignore calls to halt the equipment certification process for 6GHz unlicensed devices.
It warned that such a “misguided” proposal threatened the FCC’s role that the equipment-certification process plays in advancing technological innovation, far beyond the context of the 6 GHz proceeding, and that undermining the certification process by allowing it to become another forum for challenging FCC rulemaking decisions would deter investment, increase costs to consumers and jeopardise development of the compatible network devices that are set to roll into markets later in 2021.
“CTA members and other equipment manufacturers of all kinds, using bands across the radio frequency spectrum, depend on a predictable, reliable and timely FCC equipment certification process as a neutral venue for demonstrating compliance with commission rules before marketing products,” the CTA letter warned.
“This is not an invitation the commission should accept, particularly now, as the Covid-19 pandemic has only increased Americans’ reliance on wireless devices as a vital link for school, work and medical care.”
The stakes for next generation Wi-Fi are high. A study commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance estimates the current annual global economic value of Wi-Fi will reach $3.3tn (£2.4tn) in 2021 and will track upwards towards $4.9tn (£3.57tn) by 2025, representing 150% growth and nearly $3tn (£2.19tn) in value from 2018 to 2025.