Why Has the Wi-Fi Alliance Expanded into the Commercial Realm, and What Will Be the Impact?

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By Andrew Spivey | 3Q 2023 | IN-7037

The launch of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s new for-profit subsidiary, Wi-Fi Alliance Services, represents a new chapter for the Wi-Fi industry’s governing body. For the first time, instead of certifying the equipment of Wi-Fi infrastructure vendors, it will be one of the companies vying to supply the vendors’ services. What is the Wi-Fi Alliance trying to achieve with this move, and how will it impact the ecosystem?

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Wi-Fi Alliance Joins Crowded Field of Automated Frequency Coordination System Operators


In August 2023, the Wi-Fi Alliance launched Wi-Fi Alliance Services, a new commercial subsidiary specializing in the supply of its Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system. AFC systems are an essential component of the next wave of Wi-Fi innovation, as they will unleash considerable improvements to the performance and range of 6 Gigahertz (GHz) Wi-Fi through the permitting of standard power 6 GHz transmissions. The establishment of Wi-Fi Alliance Services is significant for several key reasons, most notably because it highlights the irregular role that the Wi-Fi Alliance is playing in the development of AFC systems. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s typical relationship with Wi-Fi equipment vendors is acting as the body overseeing the various Wi-Fi certification programs. Vendors use these programs to prove that their products meet the industry-agreed standards for a particular Wi-Fi technology; for example, Wi-Fi 7 or mesh Wi-Fi. In contrast, national regulators will be responsible for the certification of AFC systems, and the Wi-Fi Alliance will assume the role as one of the solution providers competing for the business of Wi-Fi equipment vendors. Furthermore, the new subsidiary is registered as for-profit, which stands in contrast to the nonprofit roots of the alliance. Given that selling spectrum management is outside the traditional scope of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and that the organization will face stiff competition from other vendors in the market, what exactly is the organization trying to achieve by establishing its first commercial entity?

What Gap in the Market Is the Wi-Fi Alliance Targeting?


The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use in 2020 was one of the most transformative events in recent Wi-Fi history, as the additional 1200 Megahertz (MHz) that was unlocked effectively doubled the available spectrum for Wi-Fi overnight. Yet, 6 GHz spectrum access came with a major caveat, namely that the band was already relied upon for the critical communications of organizations ranging from emergency services to public utilities. Consequently, to ensure that Wi-Fi transmissions wouldn’t interfere with these incumbents, the FCC limited power levels to Low-Power Indoor (LPI) limits, which allows for a maximum Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP) of 30 Decibel-Milliwatts (dBm). Although LPI does protect incumbents, these restrictions also suppress 6 GHz Wi-Fi’s potential, hindering performance and range and making them unsuitable for outdoor environments. Therefore, in order to enable higher power 6 GHz transmissions, while still ensuring the uninterrupted operation of incumbents, the industry devised AFC systems—platforms that consult a spectrum database to verify that higher 36 dBm transmissions are permitted from an Access Point’s (AP) location. While there will be a variety of different vendors providing these AFC systems, each platform, at least at the outset, will be broadly similar because all will have been put through the same test vectors as outlined in the AFC System Under Test (SUT) framework. Upon passing these test vectors, the national regulators of each country will then be responsible for the certification of AFC systems within their respective markets. The United States, which was the first to allocate 6 GHz for unlicensed and generally has favorable policies toward Wi-Fi, has made the most progress toward AFC system certification, with the first approvals anticipated for the end of 2023.

In late 2022, the FCC conditionally approved a diverse group of 13 AFC system operators, which alongside the Wi-Fi Alliance includes Broadcom, Comsearch (CommScope), Federated Wireless, Google, Key Bridge Wireless, Kyrio (Cable Labs), Sony Group, Nokia Innovations, Plume, Qualcomm, Red Technologies, and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). As outlined above, the final platforms are expected to be more or less similar on launch, as they will all gather their data from the same source. That said, it is those with a legacy of managing spectrum databases that have enjoyed the greatest success to date, primarily because equipment vendors place a high value on their extensive experience in the area. For example, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Aruba Networking began partnering with market-leading shared spectrum company Federated Wireless back in 2018, and together the two companies jointly developed an AFC prototype that was demonstrated to the FCC in 2019. Cisco, the largest enterprise Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) vendor by both shipments and revenue, has also partnered with Federated Wireless for AFC. Further reinforcing the advantage that spectrum management companies have is the fact that many Wi-Fi vendors will have partnered with it in the past for other spectrum access projects, such as for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), and therefore, will wish to continue this relationship into 6 GHz.

The field of conditionally approved AFC system operators also includes those without a history of spectrum management, such as chipset developer Qualcomm. Qualcomm’s unique selling point is its end-to-end approach, providing not just the AFC system, but also the AFC agent on the AP, and the geolocation capabilities. Qualcomm’s proprietary geolocation solution is based on the technology it gained through its acquisition of Skyhook in 2022, which uses the Enhanced 911 (E911) database of devices to coordinate positions relative to other devices for 15-Meter (m) accuracy indoors up to 80% of the time. This approach negates the need for costly Global Positioning System (GPS) chips in all APs (required for most alternative solutions), although it does need a network of neighboring devices, which is not available in all environments. Wi-Fi equipment vendors with existing close relationships with Qualcomm and that wish to harness its unique approach to geolocation will likely look favorably upon Qualcomm’s solution. Another alternative is the open-source AFC system from the Telecom Infra Project’s OpenAFC initiative, spearheaded by Broadcom, Cisco, and Meta. This option carries many of the benefits of other open-source platforms, such as being low-cost, vendor-agnostic, and simple to manage, although it also presents the same common drawbacks of there being no entity with overall responsibility for the initiative and the fact that participants do not have ownership of the source code.

Considering that there is already a diverse range of well-equipped AFC systems available, it begs the question as to why the Wi-Fi Alliance has deemed it necessary to launch its own solution. The answer is that among the field of AFC system operators, Wi-Fi Alliance Services is unique in that it was established primarily as a vehicle for achieving the Wi-Fi Alliance’s main goal of stimulating 6 GHz adoption. This mission is not shared by the competing operators, which predominantly introduced AFC systems as revenue-generating initiatives. This means that whereas Wi-Fi Alliance Services will remain committed to fulfilling their mission of 6 GHz adoption, there is a possibility that the other for-profit vendors may exit the AFC market in the future if revenue is deemed insufficient or the company undergoes a strategic pivot. Wi-Fi Alliance Services’ singular focus will also mean that the organization will not face competing internal priorities, and that the solution will remain low-cost, interoperable, and simple, so as to facilitate industry adoption. Although OpenAFC stands out for not being orientated around profit, this initiative is likely to face the same challenges that other open-source projects face, including that there is no entity with overall responsibility and no core standard bearer for the technology, which has the possibility to cause the project to collapse (as was the case for Terragraph in 2022). Given the potential drawbacks of the alternative AFC systems outlined above, it is understandable that the Wi-Fi Alliance launched its AFC system to ensure that there would remain a dependable and accessible AFC option on the market.

The second question is why would Wi-Fi equipment vendors choose Wi-Fi Alliance Services over the diverse group of alternative solutions? First, the Wi-Fi AFC benefits from the credibility of the Wi-Fi Alliance. All Wi-Fi vendors will have worked with the Wi-Fi Alliance in the past for product certification, so it will be a small step to extend this relationship into the commercial realm for an AFC system. Although the Wi-Fi Alliance Services subsidiary is for-profit, it was derived from the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance and was established for the sole purpose of driving 6 GHz adoption—altruistic origins that should help engender confidence in the solution. This mission, alongside the permanence of the Wi-Fi Alliance, will also allay concerns that Wi-Fi Alliance Services might exit the AFC market in the future, which is a possibility for the other vendors if revenue is deemed insufficient or the company undergoes a strategic pivot. Other advantages of the Wi-Fi AFC are that it is vendor-agnostic, that it has been built to be highly scalable, and that it supports integration with additional value-added services, such as with existing cloud systems.  

Extracting the Most Value from AFC Systems


AFC system vendors should consider some of the following recommendations to improve their AFC system operations:

  • Validate Data with Network Analysis: AFC system requirements have no provisions to verify the accuracy of the data provided from the standard power device to the AFC system, and AFC systems have a limited ability to do so anyway. Therefore, AFC systems should explore the application of network analytics for validation. This could be analyzing the network to identify if a topology is illogical (i.e., too many gaps in coverage or an excessively high density), which would suggest that the data are unreliable. Similarly, APs that appear to be relocated frequently could also be indicative of untrustworthy data.
  • Be Wary of External Security Threats: AFC systems present a new route through which external actors could attempt to disrupt or harm networks. One example is GPS signal spoofing, in which a malicious attack could deceive the GPS into giving false location data to the AFC system, leading to unpermitted standard power transmissions. Weak security could also potentially enable the AFC agent to be hijacked and directed to report false readings to the AFC system. AFC system vendors should consider GPS anti-spoofing technologies for the former issue, and advanced cybersecurity for the latter.
  • Overcoming Indoor Positioning Challenges: AFC operation requires precise AP positioning, which is particularly challenging indoors because the traditional method of geolocating based on GPS cannot function. HPE Aruba Networking, with APs that are all equipped with GPS, plans to resolve the issue by measuring the time a signal takes to travel between an AP with a known location and an AP with a location that needs to be calculated via Round Trip Time (RTT). Qualcomm, on the other hand, is leveraging a proprietary solution that coordinates positions relative to other devices with the E911 database. There is no perfect method for indoor AP positioning, and the idiosyncrasies of specific verticals will likely present their own unique challenges. Therefore, vendors should explore different solutions, and identify/develop solutions best suited to the needs of their specific target market. 
  • Harness Geolocation Opportunities: As discussed above, all standard power 6 GHz APs will be required to have precise geolocation abilities. This also makes possible additional opportunities for Location-Based Services (LBS), such as trilateration or advanced traffic flow analysis. Further unique services could be created through the combination with 802.11az and 802.11bk.
  • Expand Addressable Market: The higher power levels of standard power 6 GHz will enable new applications that LPI was unable to address, with prominent examples being in warehouse or large public venue environments. LPI also banned external antennas, which are essential for mission-critical use cases that require finely-tuned external antennas to deliver optimal performance and avoid interference hazards. Equipment vendors should, therefore, develop new high-end APs that are equipped to extract the maximum performance benefits from standard power 6 GHz, so that they can address new use cases that were previously underserved.
  • Enhance AFC Systems with Value-Added Services: Although AFC systems will be essentially identical in their first year of operation, it will be possible to develop additional differentiation in the platforms in the future. This could include closer integrations with external platforms or the cloud, or advanced spectrum mining. AFC system vendors should explore these possibilities to help differentiate their solutions from alternatives and raise their competitive position.

National regulators globally are also advised to emulate the FCC’s approach to AFC certification in order to expediate their own AFC certification processes. Over the past 2 years, the U.S. ecosystem has gradually built every component of the AFC certification process from scratch, from developing the SUT and Device Under Test (DUT) frameworks, to bringing alignment between all the various stakeholders. With this foundation already established, other nations that copy the same framework will be able to fast-track their certification processes. If, on the other hand, national regulators choose to take different approaches (as Canada has done by mandating that regulators, not the vendors, conduct the tests), then the certification process will be drawn out, and it will be longer before other countries can enjoy the benefits that standard power 6 GHz will deliver.