FCC Proposes Freeing Up Unlicensed Spectrum in 6 GHz Band

The FCC unanimously adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking today proposing to free up as much as 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 gigahertz band for unlicensed use. The spectrum under consideration in the item is in the 5.925-7.125 GHz band.

“The proposed rules are designed to allow unlicensed devices to operate in the 6 GHz band without interfering with the operation of the licensed services that will continue to use this spectrum.  In those portions of the 6 GHz band that are heavily used by point-to-point microwave links [5.925-6.425 GHz and 6.525-6.875 GHz], the Commission proposes to allow unlicensed devices to operate where permitted by an automated frequency coordination system and invites comment as to whether this is necessary for devices operated only indoors,” the agency said in a news release on the item, which was adopted in ET dockets 18-295 and GN docket 17-183. “In the other portions of the band [6.425-6.525 GHz and 6.875-7.125 GHz] where licensed mobile services, such as the Broadcast Auxiliary Service and Cable Television Relay Service, operate, the unlicensed devices would be restricted to indoor operations at lower power. These proposed rules will allow a valuable spectrum resource to be more intensively used to benefit consumers while allowing the existing licensed uses of the 6 GHz band to continue uninterrupted.

The Commission last year adopted a notice of inquiry in its mid-band proceeding that included spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz and 6 GHz bands (TR Daily, Aug. 3, 2017). A number of incumbents expressed concern that use of the 6 GHz band by unlicensed devices would cause interference to their operations. Some reiterated those concerns today.

“From Wi-Fi routers to connected home appliances to retro cordless phones for those of us who still have landlines, we use devices that connect via unlicensed spectrum every day.  Indeed, they’ve become so popular that there is now a shortage of airwaves dedicated for their use,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

“So today, we address this problem by proposing to open up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for different types of unlicensed uses.  And we seek to do so in a way that will protect incumbent licensed operations in the band,” he added. “This decision will help us meet the mandate set forth in RAY BAUM’S Act to make more spectrum available for unlicensed use.  It is also part of our aggressive and balanced spectrum strategy: pushing more licensed and unlicensed spectrum into the commercial marketplace and including a mix of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum.  And with the massive amount of wireless traffic that is off-loaded to Wi-Fi, opening up this wide swath of spectrum for unlicensed use could be a big boost to our nation’s 5G future.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that “our current Wi-Fi bands are congested because they are used by more than 9 billion devices.  By the end of the decade, we will see as many as 50 billion new devices connecting to our networks through the internet of things.  Add this up.  We’re going to need a significant swath of new unlicensed spectrum to keep up with demand. Now is the time to do something about it.  Earlier this year, Congress directed the FCC to increase the spectrum resources we devote to Wi-Fi.  That opportunity could come from the 6 GHz band — the subject of our rulemaking today.  It’s an ideal place to explore Wi-Fi expansion because it’s close to our existing Wi-Fi bands.  It also offers an opportunity to introduce wider channels — channels that will be able to take advantage of the new 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6 standard and deliver speeds even faster than 1 gigabit per second.  In other words, this is how we develop next-generation Gigabit Wi-Fi.”

Ms. Rosenworcel said she appreciated the fact that her colleagues agreed to “changes to this rulemaking at my request.  In particular, I am grateful this effort now contemplates more opportunities for low-power, indoor Wi-Fi devices throughout the 6 GHz band.  This will promote economies of scale and facilitate use of the same standards with the nearby 5 GHz band.

“This last point is important.  Because the demands on existing unlicensed airwaves are so great, we need an effort beyond the 6 GHz band,” she added. “We need a fresh look at Wi-Fi opportunities in the 5.9 GHz band. This is overdue.”

In her statement and during a news conference after today’s meeting, Ms. Rosenworcel noted that the FCC has missed a self-imposed January 2017 deadline for completing three rounds of testing on whether Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) operations can share the 5.9 GHz band with unlicensed devices. The first phase of testing is complete, but those test results have not yet been released, and the other two phases have yet to start.

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly also mentioned the 5.9 GHz band in his statement.

“To be clear, this is a prime location for unlicensed services for multiple reasons, but particularly because it is adjacent to 5 GHz and compliments the forthcoming clearing efforts in the C-band downlink band (3.7-4.2 GHz),” he said. “Moreover, studies in the record demonstrate that unlicensed spectrum at 6 GHz can likely be done without causing harmful interference to existing incumbents. Now, if we could only open up the 5.9 GHz Band for unlicensed use as well, for which I believe there are four solid votes in favor, we would really be on to something special, as it’s the missing link between the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands.

“Since today’s Notice takes a giant step to open a large swath of spectrum needed for increased capacity, higher speeds, and lower latency for unlicensed 5G or technologies not yet envisioned, it has my full support. I look forward to exploring the issues raised in it, including the best means to protect incumbents from harmful interference,” Mr. O’Rielly added. “I thank the Chairman for bringing this to a long-awaited vote and all my colleagues for agreeing to add questions at my request, such as those pertaining to low-power indoor use in the newly-minted UNII-5 and UNII-7 bands, including seeking comment on permitting such operations without an automatic frequency coordinator, and the use of portable devices. I know these ideas, and many others in the Notice, may raise initial concern from some, but these are discussions that need to be had and everyone will have an opportunity to express their views.”

Mr. Pai told reporters after the meeting that the results of the first phase of 5.9 GHz band testing – which was done in the FCC’s lab – would be released “at some point in the near future,” and he said the FCC would seek comment on those results. As for whether the FCC plans to issue an NPRM on the 5.9 GHz band, he said, “We’re still studying the issue.”

Last month, Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Julie Knapp told TR Daily that release of a report on Phase I of testing was “close,” although he said he couldn’t be “specific” on a timeframe (TR Daily, Sept. 12). He also said that Phase II testing in the field had not yet begun, adding that “initial discussions” on that phase were underway.

Commissioner Brendan Carr also said he was pleased to vote for today’s NPRM.

“As we move towards 5G, demand on our unlicensed bands will only increase. From the Internet of Things to smart ag to new telehealth applications, we need more spectrum to connect billions of new devices to the Internet. That’s why today’s proceeding is so important. It proposes to add 1,200 MHz of prime mid-band spectrum for unlicensed use — that’s five times the spectrum available today in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands,” Commissioner Carr said. “There are issues to be resolved in this proceeding, for sure. Would unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band cause harmful interference to incumbents? If so, how could we tailor protections that maximize use of the band? These are technical issues that require the input and engagement of all stakeholders. So I encourage parties to work with the Commission to develop appropriate rules. And we need to do so expeditiously. Few predicted how important the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands would be to the modern world when the FCC made them available more than 30 years ago. That history suggests the enormous potential value of the steps we take today.”

Mr. Knapp told reporters after today’s meeting that the item adopted today is “fundamentally the same” as the draft item, while noting that it asks additional questions, such as about the need for AFC for indoor device use.

Entities advocating for unlicensed access to the 6 GHz band praised today’s FCC action, while incumbents were more cautious – or even critical – in their reactions.

“Today, more than ever, Wi-Fi is expected to deliver vast amounts of data traffic that comes with broadband services such as 5G.  Wi-Fi 6 is designed to support these growing data throughput requirements, and needs additional unlicensed spectrum access to accommodate wider channels and other technical innovations.  That is why access to the mid-band, 6 GHz, unlicensed spectrum is so important to Wi-Fi’s future,” said Alex Roytblat, senior director-regulatory affairs for the Wi-Fi Alliance. “The FCC recognizes the important role Wi-Fi plays in delivering broadband connectivity today and in the future.  Wi-Fi Alliance plans to contribute to the 6 GHz band proceeding and looks forward to its prompt conclusion.”

Chris Szymanski, director-product marketing & government affairs for Broadcom, Inc., said, “Since the last mid-band designation for unlicensed use over 20 years ago our demand for Wi-Fi has exploded — the Spectrum Needs Study sponsored by Wi-Fi Alliance projected that we need up to a gigahertz of new spectrum to connect the 20 billion Wi-Fi devices that we depend on every day. We congratulate Chairman Pai and Commissioners O’Rielly, Rosenworcel and Carr on this rulemaking which may unleash over a gigahertz of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed devices. Time remains of the essence and we hope the FCC proceeds to a Report and Order quickly, featuring simple and flexible rules that will enable the industry to meet the American public’s pent-up Wi-Fi demand as soon as possible.”

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association praised the FCC for adopting the NPRM. “Because WISPA members currently use licensed 6 GHz wireless links and are also interested in accessing additional spectrum for outdoor use to relieve congestion in the nearby 5 GHz band, WISPA seeks a balanced approach that protects incumbents and enables shared use for new deployments,” it said. “Overall, WISPA agrees that the NPRM is a good starting point for policy making. In particular, the framework recognizes that indoor devices and outdoor devices should be treated differently given their potential impact on existing operations.

“Today’s vote to advance the 6 GHz NPRM is an important step toward ensuring there is sufficient mid-band spectrum available for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies,” said Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge. “The Commission correctly notes that the vast majority of mobile traffic is offloaded on to unlicensed frequencies. As consumers’ appetite for mobile services, data, and applications continues to grow, adding more unlicensed spectrum capacity is critical to making certain that U.S. spectrum policy keeps pace with consumer demand.”

“Expanding broadband services to more Americans is one of AT&T’s highest priorities, and we appreciate the Commission’s efforts to promote broader and more efficient use of spectrum to reach this goal.  We look forward to commenting on today’s proposal to allow unlicensed use of the 6 GHz band, while protecting existing users from harmful interference,” said Joan Marsh, executive vice president-regulatory & state external affairs for AT&T, Inc. “And we are encouraged by the progress being made by industry to develop a sharing proposal with the unlicensed community that ultimately could allow coexistence of Wi-Fi-type devices and microwave links.  But it is imperative that any unlicensed use must be responsible for avoiding interference with the existing, mission-critical uses of this band.”

Cheng Liu and Mitchell Lazarus, co-counsel for the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition, said that the FWCC “is in productive talks with companies that favor unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz fixed microwave band. We look forward to continuing those talks in light of the NPRM, in search of a workable solution for the widespread use of this technology that fully protects critical fixed microwave links from interference.”

Utilities Technology Council President and Chief Executive Officer Joy Ditto criticized the adoption of today’s NPRM. “Many of our nation’s electric, gas and water utilities rely on the 6 GHz spectrum band to underpin the reliable delivery of energy and water services to homes and businesses all over the country. Utilities use the 6 GHz band for their communications networks that support day-to-day, routine reliability, emergency response, storm restoration, and, increasingly for electric utilities, new technologies such as smart meters and integration of distributed energy resources. The 6 GHz band provides utilities and other critical infrastructure industries (CII) with the high-speed, long distance wireless communications required for these essential services,” Ms. Ditto said.

“Today, the FCC initiated a rulemaking to expand access to the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. Although we understand the need for expanded wireless broadband, the risk of radio frequency interference to utilities’ mission-critical networks outweighs the potential benefits from unlicensed use of the band. We are greatly concerned that the proposed rulemaking as drafted would not sufficiently mitigate potential interference to utility systems from these new unlicensed operations,” she added. “The 6 GHz band is already heavily used by utilities and other CII and is uniquely suited for these vital communications systems. In fact, there appear to be no other reasonable alternative bands for utilities to use. By contrast, there are many other bands that could be used for unlicensed, non-critical commercial operations; indeed, the Commission has already opened up additional spectrum for unlicensed operations in other bands that have yet to be used to their full potential. At the same time, the FCC has not yet opened up any new bands for CII use.  In fact, many utilities were forced to migrate to the 6 GHz band because the FCC reallocated other spectrum bands that utilities and other CII were already using for critical systems.”

Derek Poarch, CEO and executive director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, said, “Public safety agencies rely extensively on the 6 GHz band for interference-free communications critical to the safety of life and property. APCO looks forward to commenting in this proceeding to make clear that any spectrum sharing mechanism that may be deployed is demonstrated in advance to ensure that public safety communications suffer no interference and can continue to expand.”

“The key of course is whether the rules proposed actually will protect 6 GHz band critical microwave links from interference,” said Doug Aiken, acting chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council. “The FCC’s own web site shows secondary unlicensed devices at 5 GHz have caused interference to FAA Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR) operations, so the intent to prevent interference does not always translate to reality.”

“I suspect that the incumbent users of this band consider their wireless operations just as indispensable as the promise of yet more ‘consumer products.’  Let’s hope that the automated frequency coordination system works, actually works in practice, rather than in theory,” said Mark Crosby, president and CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance. —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily