The Race for 6GHz Spectrum

Article By : John Walko

Wi-Fi, 5G proponents spar over allocation of critical wireless bandwidth.

The stakes in the tussle over the 6-GHz band remain as high as ever, the lobbying noisier by the day.

As we’ve noted, arguments made by competing Wi-Fi and 5G proponents will be a major talking point during this year’s global wireless infrastructure debates. Recently, for instance, GSM Association (GSMA, as in Global System for Mobile Communications), cautioned that failure by regulators to allot sufficient 6-MHz spectrum for licensed cellular networks would threaten the ongoing 5G rollout.

The group, in collaboration with four of its most influential members—Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and ZTE—suggested the important mid-band frequency range, spanning 5,925 to 7,125 MHz, is vital for 5G and “has the potential to boost the world’s GDP by $2.2 trillion.”

According to John Giusti, GSMA’s top regulatory officer, “there is a clear threat to this growth if sufficient 6-GHz spectrum is not made available for 5G. Clarity and certainty are essential to fostering the massive, long-term investments in this critical infrastructure.”

John Giusti, top regulatory officer at GSMA.

Citing research from Coleago Consulting on mid-band 5G spectrum needs,  GSMA suggests that an additional 1 to 2 GHz of spectrum will be required to meet the required data rates of 100Mbit/s (downlink) and 50Mbit/s (uplink) , as defined by the ITU-R, for citywide capacity coverage through 2030.

Delivering on this goal will be “challenging” without licensed 6-GHz spectrum for 5G, the group warns.

Further, GSMA urged global regulatory agencies to “make 6,425 to 7,125 MHz available for licensed 5G; ensure backhaul services [are] protected; and that, depending on individual countries’ needs, incumbent use and fiber footprint, the bottom half of the 6-GHz range at 5,925 to 6,425 MHz could be opened on a license-exempt basis with technology neutral roles.”

Unfortunately, this us an example of having locked the stable doors after the horses have already bolted. Policymakers have largely decided which camp to back, and are badly divided over how to resolve the 6-GHz dilemma.

For instance, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has set relevant spectrum aside for a mix of unlicensed technologies, handing proponents of existing and future varieties of Wi-Fi a huge lift. Indeed, some Wi-Fi devices deploying 6-GHz spectrum are commercially available.

Most of Latin America has followed the FCC’s lead.

Just to be contrarian, China has allocated the scarce resource for licensed 5G networks.

Unsurprisingly, Europe is split between the two extremes, with the upper part of the 1,200 MHz in the GHz band recommended for 5G, but a 500-MHz portion available for Wi-Fi.

Africa and parts of the Middle East are following broadly similar approaches.

Of the top 20 global economies, half have now opened, or are planning to open, 6 GHz for at least partial unlicensed use. In addition to the U.S, the list includes Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Germany, the U.K., France, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

The ITU-supported World Radiocommunications Conference, the global standardization organization supposedly looking into such issues, is sticking to its position that it will rule at WRC-2023 jamboree strictly on technical grounds. It failed to make any decisions during its last meeting.

Meanwhile, GSMA also hopes the next WRC meeting will manage some kind of resolution, but the FCC has given little reason to believe it would reverse its stance. Indeed, according to the website Light Reading, Facebook, Apple , Qualcomm, Broadcom and Google have recently met with FCC officials to discuss potential mobile operations in the 6-GHz band.

In applauding the agency’s decision, the companies reportedly urged the regulator to approve several new U.S. activities in the 6-GHz band, including very low-power operations that would allow deployments without using Automatic Frequency Coordination (AFC) technology and direct client-to-client links.

The petitioners also argued that Wi-Fi represents “an economic powerhouse,” with the unlicensed technology contributing nearly $1 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2021, and $3.3 trillion globally. Wi-Fi 6 and 6-GHz devices accounted for most of those totals, the companies said.

The stakeholders also estimate the economic stimulus will increase to $1.58 trillion by 2025, and that unlicensed bands will carry half of all U.S. internet traffic, a percentage that will increase annually.

Meanwhile, unlicensed spectrum is set to become the basis for future IoT networks. Those airwaves also would help offload, or handover, LTE to unlicensed spectrum, a move that would increase with 5G from 54 percent of traffic in 2017 to 59 percent by 2022.

May the best technology win.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

John Walko is a technology writer and editor who has been covering the electronics industry since the early 1980s. He started tracking the sector while working on one of the UK’s oldest weekly technology titles, The Engineer, then moved to CMP’s flagship UK weekly, Electronics Times, in a variety of roles including news deputy and finally editor in chief. He then joined the online world when CMP started the EDTN Network, where he edited the daily electronics feed and was founding editor of commsdesign.com (which, over the years, has become the Wireless and Networking Designline). He was editor of EE Times Europe at its launch and subsequently held various positions on EE Times, in the latter years, covering the growing wireless and mobile sectors.

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