Wi-Fi currently sends its signals in the 2.4 and 5GHz bands — but a new FCC proposal seeks to expand unlicensed Wi-Fi use into the much wider 6GHz band. Doing so would open up more than 1,200MHz of new bandwidth for next-gen, Wi-Fi 6E devices, up from a total of 500MHz from the 5GHz band. With room for seven new 160MHz channels — and with no interference from previous-gen devices at all — the 6GHz band could potentially serve as a multilane superhighway for the latest Wi-Fi devices, all of them using Wi-Fi 6, the newest, fastest and most efficient version of Wi-Fi.
Now, 10 days ahead of the FCC's vote, an industry-funded study concludes that the move has the potential to generate more than $180 billion in US revenue over the next 5 years, among other benefits.
Released Monday, the report was funded by WifiForward, an industry advocacy group whose membership includes Google, Microsoft, Comcast, Charter, Broadcom, Arris and others. It was put together by Dr. Raul Katz, director of business strategy research at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and president of Telecom Advisory Services, LLC. Its key takeaways on the potential impact of the FCC's move include:
- The addition of $106 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025 due to increased broadband speeds, accelerated deployment of the Internet of Things, and expanded market access for augmented and virtual reality applications.
- A producer surplus of $69 billion due to enterprise wireless traffic savings and the sales of Wi-Fi and AR/VR equipment.
- Consumer surplus of $8 billion from increased broadband speeds.
That adds up to a total of $183.44 billion added to the US economy by 2025. You can read the full report for yourself here, but here are a couple of highlights from the data.
Faster speeds on the horizon
The report notes that the average fixed broadband download speed in the US was 137Mbps as of February of this year, and it forecasts that figure to double to 280Mbps by 2022. That's faster than the average speeds of today's dual-band routers on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands (267Mbps), which could lead to a new networking bottleneck in years ahead, where the average router isn't capable of taking full advantage of ultrafast networks.
In addition to opening the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use, the FCC is proposing to open up the bottom 45MHz of the 5.9GHz band, too. That seemingly small change would create the first widely usable, contiguous 160MHz channel in the US. Doing so, the report says, would cover the bottleneck by increasing the average router's transfer capacity to 468Mbps, and ultimately contribute $23 billion to the US GDP by 2025, as well as $5 billion in consumer surplus over the same stretch.
As for opening up the 1,200MHz in the 6GHz band, Katz pegs the five-year economic value at $83 billion in GDP contribution, $68 billion in producer surplus, and $3 billion in consumer surplus. Add that to the 5.9GHz gains, and you get that grand total of $183.44 billion added to the US economy by 2025.
"When 5.9GHz and 6GHz are opened up and added to the existing unlicensed bands in 2.4GHz and 5GHz, the combined spectrum will be able to support eight 160MHz channels or three 320MHz channels, which will be a source of additional economic value as Wi-Fi 6 and later technology generations meet increasing Wi-Fi traffic," Katz writes.
The FCC's proposal for the 6GHz band would open it for standard-power Wi-Fi connections, and also for low-power indoor connections (LPI) and very-low-power connections (VLP). The latter two are the bread and butter for machine-to-machine communications (M2M), which could prove pivotal as the Internet of Things continues to evolve.
"Under this new proposal, industry stakeholders state that LPI and VLP devices not only present minimal harmful interference risk, but also offer enormous economic value," Katz writes. "In fact, a wide range of stakeholders, including broadband providers and technology companies, believe that, unless the designation of LPI and VLP devices is fulfilled, the economic value derived from the 6GHz band would be greatly diminished."
Specifically, Katz figures that the increased LPI spectrum capacity for M2M communications, which are projected to grow from an installed base of 118 million devices today to 214 million by 2025, will allow for a broader deployment of IoT devices, with a spillover contribution to the GDP valued at $44 billion over the next five years.
In addition, the report describes the potential for "ubiquitous, high-throughput wireless connectivity across multiple indoor access points in business facilities, such as industrial plants, enterprise campus, and the like, generating an initial producer surplus from savings in telecommunications equivalent to $54.04 billion between 2020 and 2025."
As for VLP, Katz projects that carving out space in the 6GHz band for connections like those will enable a new generation of AR/VR applications that could yield as much as $14 billion for US firms selling hardware, software and content over the next five years. That, in turn, would yield a spillover contribution to the GDP equivalent to roughly $26 billion.
A boon to 5G, as well
Katz projects that cellular operations stand to benefit from the FCC's proposal, as well. The reasoning is pretty straightforward. As data traffic continues ballooning, Wi-Fi networks will be able to shoulder more of the burden. That means that cellular service providers should be able to decrease their investments and operating expenses from what they might have projected without the FCC's move.
"In the absence of additional unlicensed spectrum bands, service providers would have to deploy expensive infrastructure to accommodate the growth in traffic," Katz writes, noting that the additional bandwidth the FCC wants to allocate will factor directly into these efforts. "It is conservatively assumed that this advantage will become effective for a portion of the suburban (approximately 15%) and rural (roughly 5%) network deployment, which will yield savings of $13.60 billion, which could be invested in extending 5G deployment in rural areas."
Now for the vote
The FCC is scheduled to begin voting on its proposals on April 23. If they pass (and with bipartisan support led by Chairman Ajit Pai, it appears likely that they will), the Wi-Fi industry is prepared to hit the ground running. The Wi-Fi Alliance already established a "Wi-Fi 6E" designation for new devices equipped to tap into the 6GHz band. New chipsets for access points and mobile devices are already equipped to do exactly that, and could make their way into devices available by the end of this year.
We'll keep an eye on things as that vote draws near. Stay tuned.
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