This editorial appears in the November 2023 edition (Issue 10) of the Wi-Fi Alliance® Wi-Fi 6E Insights newsletter, a quarterly newsletter sharing updates on regulatory developments in the growing Wi-Fi 6E ecosystem. To subscribe to the newsletter, please sign up here.
In a few weeks, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) in Dubai will revise the international treaty that will shape the evolution of wireless connectivity. Chief among the issues before WRC-23 is whether to designate the 6.425-7.125 GHz frequency band (upper 6 GHz band) for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) services, such as 4G and 5G. Many countries are opposed to this IMT designation because numerous spectrum-sharing studies have conclusively confirmed that cellular network deployments will interfere with and disrupt important incumbent operations in the upper 6 GHz band.
Moreover, the upper 6 GHz band is already allocated in the international Radio Regulations to the Mobile service on a primary basis. As a broadly defined service allocation,1 it affords the flexibility to use various mobile systems and applications of the mobile service (including cellular) based on national priorities and requirements. Importantly, by deciding against the IMT identification at WRC-23, countries will preserve the option to use this spectrum for license-exempt access, enabling Wi-Fi 6E (and very soon Wi-Fi 7) to meet the rapidly rising demand for localized connectivity. For more on this topic, see the insightful article by analyst Dean Bubley.2
The vast majority of wireless data traffic (e.g., more than 80%) is delivered to end-users by Wi-Fi®, according to figures published by national regulators. In Europe, for example, broadband data consumption per household is set to grow by 675 gigabytes (GB) per month between 2022 and 2030,3 with most of it distributed to end-users via Wi-Fi. In contrast, Europe’s cellular data consumption per user is set to rise by just 60 GB per month in the same time period. While the absolute numbers will differ, the trends are similar in other regions of the world.
The risk of a new digital divide
As countries representing 30% of the world’s GDP have already made the upper 6 GHz band license-exempt, a vibrant 6 GHz Wi-Fi ecosystem has emerged, now offering more than 2,000 different device models, including routers, smartphones, laptops, TVs, tablets, and printers. The world’s flagship smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone 15 range, Samsung Galaxy S23 and Google Pixel 7, incorporate 6 GHz Wi-Fi (i.e., Wi-Fi 6/6E) capabilities. In countries where the entire 6 GHz band is available for Wi-Fi access, consumers are making full use of these capabilities, benefiting from faster data transfer rates, lower latencies, improved power consumption, and much more. Meanwhile, in countries where regulators are holding back on 6 GHz Wi-Fi authorizations, the latest smartphones and many other wireless devices are required to disable this advanced functionality. The disparity is unfair to consumers living in countries where 6 GHz Wi-Fi regulations have not advanced, as highlighted in a recent Wi-Fi Alliance article.
Advances in 6 GHz Wi-Fi continue to progress at a rapid pace. The next generation of Wi-Fi, WiFi 7, is geared for introduction in early 2024. Wi-Fi 7 is intended to support advanced use cases such as augmented, virtual, and extended reality (AR/VR/XR) and social gaming, as well as industrial applications that require real-time capabilities, such as automation. At the recent Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG) meeting in Bahrain, Wi-Fi Alliance collaborated with members including Broadcom, Cisco, HPE Aruba Networking, and Meta, to host the first public demonstration of Wi-Fi 7 in the Middle East. The demo showed a Wi-Fi 7 device operating in a 320 MHz channel at over 11 meters distance with throughputs of up to 3.7 Gbps downlink and 3.4 Gbps uplink. Such performance depends on access to 320 MHz channels, which can only be provided with access to the entire 6 GHz band.
6 GHz Wi-Fi products are delivering today, whereas 6 GHz IMT is barely a concept
While 6 GHz Wi-Fi devices are readily available today, there is no commercial equipment available that can access IMT services in the 6 GHz band. Such equipment is unlikely to become available in any volume until the end of this decade, primarily because it will take governments time to consider whether and how to license wide area cellular deployments in this spectrum while ensuring coexistence with the incumbent operations.
Ultimately, even if the upper 6 GHz band is cleared of current users, there is no certainty that the spectrum will be suitable for commercially viable IMT deployments. In fact, a number of IMT spectrum designations made at previous WRCs remain unassigned in many countries today. A study by Plum Consulting4 determined that no country has licensed all the IMT designated spectrum to mobile networks, with the majority allocating less than half of the IMT frequencies. Such reservations are becoming counterproductive to the underlying objective of international spectrum harmonization. The possible IMT identification of the upper 6 GHz band at WRC-23, in particular, would disrupt one of the overriding public policy objectives – enabling affordable broadband connectivity. Wi-Fi is a critical component of today’s connectivity requirements, and the 6 GHz spectrum is the only frequency band that can support optimal Wi-Fi functionality.
A “No Change” decision on the 6.425-7.125 GHz band at WRC-23 will allow consumers and enterprises to reap the full benefits of Wi-Fi while advancing economic and environmental benefits. And nations that choose to authorize cellular networks in this frequency band can do so without amending the international treaty. Conversely, a WRC-23 decision for 6 GHz IMT would severely handicap the growing 6 GHz Wi-Fi ecosystem and impede its rapid deployment. Importantly, this IMT identification would exacerbate the digital divide between countries that enable the latest Wi-Fi technology and countries that continue to reserve the 6 GHz spectrum resources for a non-existent IMT ecosystem.
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