China Bucks the Global Trend and Reserves the Lower 6 GHz Spectrum for Private 5G

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By Andrew Spivey | 4Q 2022 | IN-6788

Years of speculation about China’s 6 GHz spectrum stance have ended, but with a result few expected. What are the ramifications of awarding state aerospace manufacturer COMAC the private 5G spectrum licenses for the 5.925 – 6.125 GHz frequency?

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China's First Non-Telco Private 5G License Includes Coveted 6 GHz Spectrum


In late November 2022, Mainland China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) surprised observers by announcing that the country’s first private 5G license for a non-telco company would include the allocation of the lower 5.925 – 6.125 Gigahertz (GHz) portion of the 6 GHz band, alongside the 25 GHz band. This is a bad omen for those hoping to see the release of 6 GHz for unlicensed use in the country, and puts Mainland China at odds with large swaths of the globe, where the tide is now very much in unlicensed 6 GHz’s favor. Does this move signal the end of the road for unlicensed 6 GHz in China?

Spectrum Allocation with Chinese Characteristics


The 6 GHz band spans 5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz, a 1200 MHz span that roughly doubles the unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi in markets where the full amount is accessible. The United States became the first mover when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated the entire band in April 2022, which most of the Americas subsequently emulated. Virtually all European countries have instead opted for just the lower portion (5.925 – 6.425 Megahertz (MHz)), reserving the upper section for cellular or dual use. Asia is less uniform, with neighboring nations choosing different allocations (South Korea followed America’s lead, while Japan chose to align with Europe), and many large nations like India and Indonesia are still contemplating which path to choose. While Mainland China had remained characteristically tight-lipped on the matter, many had assumed that the country would at least decide to release the lower 6 GHz for unlicensed, or else they would become a global 6 GHz outlier. These predictions were proven wrong this week by the MIIT’s announcement.

The awarding of the 5.925 – 6.125 GHz and 24.750 – 25.15 GHz frequency ranges for the country’s first 5G private network was unveiled at the 2022 China 5G + Industrial Internet Conference in Wuhan, and the recipient was China’s premier state-owned aerospace manufacturer, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. (COMAC). This strategically important company has been developing the country’s first passenger airliner, the COMAC C919, for over a decade now, with the goal of reducing its own dependence on Airbus and Boeing, and ultimately competing with these two heavyweights in the global market. The Civil Aviation Administration of China issued the narrow-body airliner’s airworthiness certificate on September 29 this year, with the first client delivery to China Eastern Airlines on December 9. With a reported 815 orders for its C919 aircraft from 28 customers, manufacturing is now set to ramp up, and the MIIT sees 5G-connected factories as playing a key role in this process. More broadly, it also believes that COMAC’s license will promote greater adoption of 5G for industrial applications in China.

The challenge, which was not addressed at the event, is that the 5.925 – 6.125 GHz span constitutes a vital portion of the lower 6 GHz band and, to date, this lower portion has been designated as unlicensed in every country that has opened the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi. 6 GHz is strategically important because the Wi-Fi industry is currently in a state of transition, as new standards are slowly adopted with the raison d'être to harness the power of 6 GHz. Over the past year, Wi-Fi 6E (which first introduced 6 GHz to the market by extending Wi-Fi 6 into the new band) underwent rapid market adoption, with more than 660 Wi-Fi 6E devices now certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Furthermore, the accelerated arrival of Wi-Fi 7 (with many technical advancements that will unleash the full potential of the 6 GHz spectrum) is being driven by the Mainland Chinese equipment vendors—remember that it was TP-Link that had the honor of unveiling the world’s first complete Wi-Fi 7 networking solution in November, an expansive range spanning solutions for mesh networks, enterprises, and gaming. Yet, the MIIT’s decision signals that there is no prospect for these 6 GHz devices to be used in Mainland China; therefore, products like TP-Link’s Wi-Fi 7 series will squarely target the export market. The consequences of China’s exclusion from Wi-Fi 7’s superior throughputs and latencies will be an inability for consumers to enjoy the next generation of Wi-Fi experiences enabled by Wi-Fi7, and the restriction of access by businesses to the advanced connectivity that future enterprises will demand. This will adversely impact China’s Wi-Fi market, and ultimately act to deepen a bifurcation between the Chinese and Western tech ecosystems.

What Is China's Strategy, and Why Does It Matter?


One of the core reasons for the decision is the Chinese government’s emphasis on the importance of 5G-connected factories. The awarding of the private 5G license to COMAC can be seen as part of a broader push to widen the application of 5G in the industrial domain, which China views as key to its strategic goal of boosting the country’s advanced manufacturing capabilities. The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) argues that mid-band spectrum (1 – 7 GHz) for 5G is highly valuable for manufacturing applications, and given that manufacturing forms the key pillar of the Chinese economy, the needs of state-owned companies invariably take precedence over those of private businesses, and Wi-Fi, in general, takes a backseat to cellular in the country, the demands of 5G industrial manufacturing for 6 GHz will naturally take priority over Wi-Fi’s needs.

That said, this is not necessarily the nail in the coffin for unlicensed 5.925 – 6.125 GHz in China. Considering that COMAC is a state-owned company, the government may see this license as a form of regulatory experimentation, to test non-telco licenses and the combinations of mid-band and high-band frequencies in industrial manufacturing, but with the potential to reverse that if necessary. Moving forward, there is also the possibility of divergent 6 GHz policies at the provincial level. China is a vast country with more autonomy at the provincial level than is typically appreciated, so it is possible that individual provinces may set different 6 GHz policies depending on their unique needs and targets. For example, provinces with a heavy industrial base may offer 5G private spectrum licenses for 6 GHz as a means of spurring advanced manufacturing and attracting factories to set up in their backyard, while provinces with a greater share of carpeted office enterprises and higher consumer demands for unlicensed spectrum might favor 6 GHz for Wi-Fi. Alternatively, the central government might strategically leverage 6 GHz allocation as a means to direct growth and investment toward certain regions.

Although 5G-connected factories do hold great prospects for advanced manufacturing, it is important for the MIIT to appreciate that whereas the 5.925 – 6.125 GHz frequency range is not essential for 5G-connected factories, it is for Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7. Virtually all major economies have now made at least the lower portion of the band unlicensed, if not the entire band, and China’s deviation from the norm would not only greatly impact economies of scale at the hardware level, but would also inhibit access by its consumers and enterprises to the advanced connectivity of the 6 GHz-enabled Wi-Fi of the future. All members of the Wi-Fi ecosystem should collaborate to persuade the MIIT to reconsider its approach to the 6 GHz spectrum. Chinese Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), both for Wi-Fi infrastructure and client devices, should recognize their common interests and exert a united voice on the matter, highlighting the consumer, enterprise, and industrial opportunities of the new standards. Industry associations, on the other hand, should conduct trials that highlight the technological and economic potential of new Wi-Fi technologies, such as standard power 6 GHz transmission and Wi-Fi 7, which could convince the MIIT of the detrimental impacts of abandoning unlicensed 6 GHz.