The Federal Communications Commission announced a potentially significant step for Wi-Fi today, with plans for an April 23 vote on a proposal to open the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. Doing so would free up more than 1,200MHz of additional bandwidth for next-gen Wi-Fi 6E devices with antennas and chipsets capable of tapping into the extra spectrum.
"To accommodate that increase in Wi-Fi demand, the FCC is aiming to increase the supply of Wi-Fi spectrum with our boldest initiative yet: making the entire 6GHz band available for unlicensed use," reads the FCC's announcement. "By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi almost by a factor of five. This would be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation. It would be another step toward increasing the capacity of our country's networks. And it would help advance even further our leadership in next generation wireless technologies, including 5G."
With more than twice as much bandwidth as the 5GHz band used by Wi-Fi devices today, the 6GHz band could accommodate up to seven 160MHz channels at once. Latency stands to be a lot lower on the 6GHz band too, because there aren't any existing, older-gen Wi-Fi devices operating in that spectrum to slow things down. That gives the 6GHz band the potential to serve as an exclusive, multilane expressway for Wi-Fi devices equipped to take advantage, all of them using Wi-Fi 6, the newest, fastest and most efficient version of Wi-Fi.
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The announcement of a vote on opening the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use comes months after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai signaled his support for the move.
"This band is currently populated by microwave services that are used to support utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul," Pai said in September of 2019. "But studies have shown that sharing this band with unlicensed operations is feasible, and can put massive amounts of new spectrum into the hands of consumers."
The Wi-Fi industry has signaled strong support for the move, as well. In January, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced the new Wi-Fi 6E designation for devices equipped to operate in that 6GHz spectrum. Broadcom soon followed suit with Wi-Fi 6E chipsets for things like access points and mobile phones, and expects that manufacturers will move quickly to get those chips into new devices in the coming months.
"We're expecting the first set of devices to come to market in the second half of this year," said Vijay Nagarajan, vice president of marketing for Broadcom's Wireless Communications and Connectivity Division. "You'll see a whole slew of devices, both on the infrastructure side and on the client side, and much more in a much more accelerated manner in 2021."
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Eric McLaughlin, vice president of the client computing group and general manager of the wireless solutions group at Intel agreed with that timeline, and notes that some in the industry have been preparing for the 6GHz age for years.
"Intel, Broadcom and other industry leaders made a risk call almost two years ago to start developing and spending millions of dollars on getting products ready," McLaughlin said.
Much of that work went towards demonstrating that unlicensed Wi-Fi usage wouldn't interfere with the small amount of existing traffic on the 6GHz band — things like emergency broadcasts and microwave transmissions.
"What they're talking about is creating a brand new band for Wi-Fi," says Broadcom government affairs director Chris Szymanski. "That hasn't been done before. And so this is really one of the most heavily studied proceedings that I've seen, I mean, thousands of pages of technical studies. It was important for the FCC to get it right."
In the end, McLaughlin cites the demonstrated potential for the 6GHz band to make a widespread impact on the quality of our connections as the key factor that helped the move pick up momentum within the FCC.
"There's nobody that doesn't use Wi-Fi in some shape or form today," McLaughlin said. "That's one of the reasons we're so behind this. It's not just a product thing for us, it's that everyone can benefit, and that's a great use of these kinds of assets."
You can find the full FCC announcement here.
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