As WRC-23 Approaches, the Wi-Fi Industry Needs to Build a Watertight Case for Unlicensed 6 GHz

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By Andrew Spivey | 2Q 2023 | IN-6947

It’s no exaggeration to say that the decision on 6 GHz access made at the World Radiocommunication Conferences 2023 (WRC-23) has the potential to determine the future of Wi-Fi; therefore, the Wi-Fi industry must make it a priority to devise a strong strategy for achieving the outcome it needs.

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WRC-23 to Be a Pivotal Moment for the Future of Wi-Fi


The World Radiocommunication Conferences 2023 (WRC-23), due to take place in Dubai between November 20 and December 15 this year, will constitute a critical turning point for the future of Wi-Fi. The quadrennial meeting serves as the platform for member states of the International Telecommunication Unions (ITU) to review and work toward the harmonization of international spectrum policy, and the outcome of agenda item 1.2 at this year’s iteration will be fiercely contested between those who want to make the upper 6 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum unlicensed (a “No Change” position), and those who want to turn it over for exclusive use by International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT, referring to cellular). Should a No Change position be achieved, then consumers and enterprises will be able to enjoy the full potential of Wi-Fi 7 and standard power 6 GHz. On the other hand, if delegates opt to assign the upper 6 GHz to IMT, then Wi-Fi will face being handicapped in the regions to which it applies, to the detriment of consumers and enterprises alike.

What's at Stake?


In the 3 years since the United States became the first country to allocate the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use, the world has fractured into three blocs: those that have released the entire 1200 Megahertz (MHz) of the spectrum (5925 – 7125 MHz) for unlicensed use, those that allocated only the lower portion (5925 – 6425 MHz), and the undecided. This has resulted in a muddled global patchwork of divergent 6 GHz policies, and recent events have done little to provide clarity. September last year is a case in point, as during the same month, Japan decided to make only the lower 6 GHz unlicensed; the Dominican Republic settled upon the entire band; and Chile reversed its 6 GHz position away from full access toward just the lower portion. In February this year, Mexico further confused the Americas’ situation by defying widely held expectations and choosing to make only the lower portion of 6 GHz unlicensed. This lack of certainty explains the large number of nations that have remained on the fence. To date, only three (out of 54) African nations have established a 6 GHz policy, with Togo joining Morocco and Kenya in December 2022 in allocating the lower 6 GHz band for unlicensed. While Egypt, Tunisia, and South Africa are all considering the lower 6 GHz, they are likely to delay their ultimate decision until WRC-23 provides them direction. The rest of Africa and broad swaths of Asia are likewise awaiting guidance from WRC-23.

On the agenda at WRC-23 is whether to set the upper 6 GHz spectrum (6425 – 7025 MHz) for IMT identification in the ITU Region 1, which broadly encompasses Europe, Africa, most of the Middle East (excluding Iran and Afghanistan), Russia, and the majority of the former Soviet republics (minus Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Region 2 and Region 3, which cover the Americas and Asia-Pacific, respectively, are only considering the IMT allocation of the highest 100 MHz of the 6 GHz spectrum (7025 – 7125 MHz), although the outcome of the Region 1 decision will set a precedent and inevitably significantly influence the trend in these two regions. A broad assortment of industry associations are already lining up to support the making of the entire 6 GHz band unlicensed at WRC-23, spanning the FTTH Council Europe (Europe’s foremost industry association promoting fiber-based connectivity) to the Global Satellite Operators Association (GSOA). On the opposite side, those advocating for licensed 6 GHz (required for cellular/5G) include the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) and the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Countless others are still undecided, with the working group for the upper 6 GHz band at the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) in the process of exploring the possibility of sharing the 6 GHz spectrum between unlicensed use and IMT. Whatever the outcome, the decision made at WRC-23 will provide the crucial clarity that the industry needs to move forward, and will allow the remaining countries to establish their 6 GHz policies with the confidence that their decision is in line with global trends.

Advocating Unlicensed 6 GHz at WRC-23


With WRC-23 now just 6 months out, it is vital that all organizations with a stake in the Wi-Fi ecosystem understand the full potential of the upper 6 GHz band and together formulate a strong case for making it unlicensed. Some of the core arguments include:

  • Immediate Boost to Economic Growth: A message that should resonate especially loudly in these challenging economic times, unlicensed 6 GHz will help spur economic growth by providing enterprises with instant access to low-cost additional spectrum and the advanced connectivity to enable new use cases. In contrast, economies will be waiting considerably longer for any economic boost, which may come from licensed 6 GHz.
  • Centrality to the Home of the Future: Not only will the additional bandwidth of the full 6 GHz spectrum be necessary for the handling of the increasing number of connected devices in the home, but it will also have an important role in delivering the throughput and latency advancements required for next-generation consumer applications, such as 8K streaming and Extended Reality (XR).
  • Build a Picture of the Future Ecosystem: While many unlicensed advocates rightly point to the extensive existing ecosystem of 6 GHz-compatible Wi-Fi devices and access points, alongside the comparative dearth of 5G equipment, they should also highlight where the industry will be in just a few short years. Showcasing the 6 GHz-enabled products on the roadmaps of ecosystem vendors will help further solidify the notion that there will be a plethora of devices available to facilitate the exploiting of unlicensed 6 GHz.
  • Economies of Scale: It should be made clear that unified policies on the entire 6 GHz spectrum will help unlock economies of scale, further benefitting the consumer with reduced product costs (as there will be less need for different Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) between regions) and the guarantee of comparable performance everywhere.
  • Use It or Lose It: The fact that large portions of the existing IMT spectrum, including in the 700 MHz, 3.6 GHz, and 26 GHz bands, aren’t being used by 5G today suggests that 6 GHz would remain similarly underutilized. Wi-Fi, in contrast, is desperate for additional capacity, with the 5 GHz spectrum, first made available to Wi-Fi back in 1999, heavily congested. Allocating 6 GHz for IMT would incur significant opportunity costs, as Wi-Fi would remain handicapped by limited spectrum, while IMT would likely not use the spectrum in the near term.
  • Demonstrate Capabilities: Successful deployments of Wi-Fi 6E, such as the installation at LG’s headquarters in South Korea (Extreme Networks) or at the Chase Center in San Francisco (HPE Aruba Networking), should be referred to as proof of the new band’s potential for Wi-Fi. Furthermore, in the months leading up to WRC-23 additional trials of standard power 6 GHz should be conducted to demonstrate the potential of the technology.
  • Collaboration over Competition: Instead of framing the conversation around the competition between Wi-Fi and cellular for 6 GHz, with unlicensed desperately trying to demonstrate its greater societal benefit over licensed, emphasis should instead be placed on the possibility for unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi to support cellular. For example, those advocating for unlicensed should highlight how this would unlock considerable additional capacity for mobile offload onto Wi-Fi. For evidence of the technology’s capability to handle this use case, advocates can refer to the Wi-Fi 6E OpenRoaming trial at Portugal’s Polytechnic Institute of Viseu, jointly conducted by Broadcom, Extreme Networks, Intel, and Samsung. The possibility for 5G backhaul (using existing fixed links) and for 5G New Radio Unlicensed (NR-U) operation should also be discussed.

In contrast to the many advantages of unlicensed 6 GHz outlined above, there are numerous disadvantages of licensed 6 GHz. These include that denying access to other users may reduce spectrum efficiency and limit innovation; that spectrum will be locked into a specific technology family for a long-term period; and importantly, that, unlike Wi-Fi with Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC), there is no method of allowing high-power IMT use cases to coexist with existing incumbents in the 6 GHz spectrum. Many of these incumbents represent essential services, such as is the case for Fixed-Satellite Services (FSS) and Mobile-Satellite Services (MSS) systems. For example, MSS systems include the Inmarsat network, which is used for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), and for the necessary satellite communications required for aircraft operations and passenger communications. In Region 1, the band is leveraged for uplink signals associated with the Satellite-Based Navigation Augmentation Services (SBAS), vital for functions like aircraft precision landing systems. While proponents of an IMT 6 GHz claim that IMT can coexist with current FSS and MSS use cases, presented solutions require that IMT deployments in the 6 GHz band remain below an unrealistically low threshold that would essentially limit the benefits of 6 GHz IMT for consumers, and are also reliant upon limited computer simulations, which cannot be practically validated. Furthermore, previous experience with the 2.5 GHz band suggests that overtime interference from IMT systems will inevitably inhibit certain satellite functions. Thus, if the upper 6 GHz band is identified for IMT at WRC-23, over time, it is highly likely to become unusable for satellite systems, something that brings into question the practicality of assigning 6 GHz for IMT.