The Federal Communications Commission took the long-awaited vote on April 23 to open up the entire 6GHz band to unlicensed use, including WiFi and other types of unlicensed communications. Users will have to share the band with existing users, which includes newsgathering, satellite communications and telecom backhaul. Equipment for the new uses at 6GHz is expected to be commercially available before the end of 2020.
“Ultimately, I expect that 6GHz unlicensed devices will become a part of consumers’ everyday lives,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a media advisory. “And I predict the rules we adopt today will play a major role in the growth of the internet of things, connecting appliances, machines, meters, wearables, smart televisions and other consumer electronics, as well as industrial sensors for manufacturing.”
“Obviously this is a transformative moment for our industry,” said Alex Roytblat, senior director of worldwide regulatory affairs for the WiFi Alliance. Roytblat noted that even given the relatively small amount of spectrum with which WiFi began, it was able to transform communications to the point that more than half of IT traffic now travels over WiFi.
Huge Amount of Spectrum Released
What makes the FCC action so transformative are two things: First, it’s a lot of spectrum. The amount of radio spectrum that’s being made available includes all of the 6GHz band as well as 200MHz of the 5GHz band, for a total of 1,200 megahertz. There’s enough space for seven 160MHz channels for WiFi.
Second, there will be two different classes of WiFi using the spectrum. There’s a low-power version that’s intended to be used indoors and can use the entire spectrum. There’s also a higher-power outdoor version of WiFi that doesn’t get all 1,200MHz and which has to use automatic frequency coordination so that it won’t interfere with licensed users in the 6MHz band.
The high-power WiFi access points will be required to have a GPS receiver and an internet connection to provide access to a database of licensed users in the band where they are. They will also be required to listen to the frequency where they plan to operate before transmitting.
While this sounds complicated, it’s similar to the frequency coordination plan for the television white space allocations of a couple of years ago, where it’s already in use.
Chris Szymanski, VP of marketing and government affairs for Broadcom, said that enterprises will be able to implement 10-Gigabit wireless backbones where they need them, and be freed from the need to run fiber. “New services may kick in,” he said, “[such as] higher-definition virtual conferencing, or digitally immersive experiences, including teaching and worker training.” Szymanski said that the greater bandwidth would make augmented reality and virtual reality routine parts of the workday.
Will Be a Huge Opportunity for Enterprises
“In enterprises, WiFi 6 being able to optimally use the bandwidth in this spectrum is awesome,” said Vijay Nagarajan, VP of mobile connectivity for Broadcom. “People will get used to the stability WiFi 6 offers.”
“It’s going to be better when we look at the WiFi applications out in the business world,” said Jeff Campbell, VP of technology policy at Cisco. “When we look at the connected workers, you’re getting congestion on WiFi now.”
Much of the congestion that’s present in WiFi today comes from legacy devices that are confined to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Users in the 6GHz region will have relative pristine spectrum. This will allow a number of new uses in addition to WiFi. This includes sensors used in manufacturing, medical devices and process automation.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of spaces where we’ll have the ability to transmit video in very high definition, and use AI to act on it,” Campbell said, including security and manufacturing oversight.
“There is the ability to rely on it for mundane things, like collecting data from sensors,” Campbell said, “so we’ll have more IoT devices out there.”
Campbell said the very-high-definition video enabled by very high bandwidth will likely lead to applications that allow a computer using AI to react to conditions in real time. In addition to manufacturing, Campbell said that areas such as agriculture will benefit from the higher bandwidth because then you’d have the ability to read sensors and video of a field to determine whether it needs water or pesticides.
New Capabilities in Store for Scientists, Office Workers, Too
According to Campbell, the new unlicensed spectrum will bring about new capabilities for engineers in offices and labs because of the high bandwidth. And he thinks it bears on the situation today, while the world fights a pandemic.
“If you look at what the world is going through today in terms of remote education or medicine,” it could be a game changer, Campbell said. It could make a huge difference if you’re setting up a field hospital, for example, because then you’d have the bandwidth you need for telemedicine, he added.
“This is going to expand our opportunities,” Campbell said. “The FCC is making a decision not just for today, but for the future.”
Wayne Rash, a former executive editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.