Agenda item 1.2 of the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) considers the identification of the upper 6 GHz band (6425—7025 MHz) for IMT. With over a year to go until the event, the debate over the band seems more heated than ever.
UK regulator Ofcom recently faced a backlash when it proposed a compromise approach to the band. The regulator suggested adding the upper part of 6 GHz to its shared access licence regime.
This would allow for indoor Wi-Fi deployments through a licensing programme while avoiding a broader decision on the 6 GHz band. The regulator was criticised by players from both sides of the debate who viewed the proposal as a threat to their vision for the band.
Yet while both sides continue to argue their case, a thriving Wi-Fi ecosystem is quietly developing in the background. The Wi-Fi Alliance recently announced that it expects more than 350 million 6 GHz-supporting Wi-Fi 6e products to enter the market this year.
If this pans out, it’s an impressive number, especially considering the Alliance only started certifying Wi-Fi 6e products a little over a year ago. This momentum has likely come from major markets such as the US, which opened the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed use in 2020.
While Wi-Fi advocates have been focused on opening up the 6 GHz band, the mobile sector is engaged in spectrum battles on various fronts. In a recent paper, the industry body GSMA urged regulators to assign the 3.8—4.2 GHz, 4.8 GHz and 6 GHz bands for mobile. Some regulators have yet to be convinced. Ofcom has no plans for future mid-band spectrum auctions.
Even if WRC-23 decides that the 6 GHz band should be identified for IMT, regulators will have to contend with a growing 6 GHz Wi-Fi ecosystem. If the 6 GHz band is as important for Wi-Fi as advocates say it is, not assigning the band for unlicensed use could cause countries to fall behind.
The reality is that Wi-Fi remains prominent in people’s everyday life. Ofcom’s own data shows that 73 per cent of all data connections use Wi-Fi rather than cellular. Emerging use cases such as virtual and augmented reality are also likely to rely on the standard. Whatever the result of WRC-23, regulators will need to consider both approaches carefully and take a long-term view in line with their national spectrum strategy.•