FCC votes to make 1,200 MHz at 6 GHz available for unlicensed

Wi-Fi smartphone
The latest generation of the Wi-Fi standard, Wi-Fi 6, will be able to take advantage of the 6 GHz band. (Getty Images)

Noting the big role Wi-Fi is playing in homes across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC voted unanimously today to make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use.

The FCC itself called it a bold step, as there was plenty of pressure to dedicate at least a portion of the spectrum for licensed services. Citing the need for mid-band spectrum for 5G, CTIA, for example, had fought for part of the band for licensed use. In the end, FCC commissioners said today’s action not only is timely in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, but will also complement 5G.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai described the proceeding as one of the most complicated in many years from an engineering perspective and recognized the FCC staff. At one point, he also acknowledged parents on the call with children at home, as children could be heard in the background during the telephonic meeting, a measure taken to social distance during the crisis.

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The 6 GHz band is currently used by, among others, microwave services that are used to support utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul. Under the FCC’s plan, their operations will be protected while enabling the new unlicensed services. 

Specifically, the FCC’s Report and Order authorizes indoor low-power operations over the full 1,200 megahertz and standard-power devices in 850 megahertz in the 6 GHz band. An automated frequency coordination (AFC) system will prevent standard power access points from operating where they could cause interference to incumbent services. 

RELATED: FCC sets all 1,200 MHz in motion for 6 GHz unlicensed

After personally championing 6 GHz for unlicensed use for years, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he was “exceptionally pleased” that they were finally taking steps to free up this spectrum. Except for one other smaller, but equally important spectrum slice – 5.9 GHz – there is no greater opportunity for expanding unlicensed services, especially Wi-Fi, given its close proximity to the 5 GHz band that most people rely on today in their homes. Along with the 2.4 GHz band, those two bands have carried the bulk of Wi-Fi and other unlicensed devices for about two decades.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel thanked O’Rielly for his early work to champion the policies and for working with her office. She said like millions of Americans, her household is relying on Wi-Fi like never before, but also said others are driving to parking lots to use Wi-Fi to get online because they don’t have access at home. “That needs attention because it is a stark reminder that when it comes to digital equity, we have work to do,” she said.

The 6 GHz band is closely tied to the latest generation of the Wi-Fi standard, Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi Alliance created the Wi-Fi 6E moniker to designate devices that are based on the Wi-Fi 6 standard that will “extend,” or operate, in the 6 GHz band.

But even those who can’t afford the new equipment that will take advantage of the new spectrum and the latest iteration of Wi-Fi, speeds for their devices should increase as existing Wi-Fi traffic moves to the new spectrum, noted Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. 

The 6 GHz spectrum also is expected to complement 5G service and “unleash a wave of innovation” for the IoT. “It will allow doctors to conduct complex examinations and procedures remotely, enable the training of students and workers using virtual and augmented reality, and spur the next generation of streaming content and gaming,” he said.

Commissioner Brendan Carr also predicted that years from now, the FCC’s vote will not be remembered for the faster Netflix downloads it will enable, but for new applications. One example is using VR glasses to order groceries while sitting on a couch in the comfort of a home rather than standing in lines that snake around blocks because people have to stand six feet apart.

The FCC also approved a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on a proposal to permit very low-power devices to operate across the 6 GHz band to support high data rate applications including high-performance, wearable, augmented-reality and virtual-reality devices. In addition, the notice seeks comment on increasing the power at which low-power indoor access points may operate. 

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