Uneven Allocation of the 6 GHz Spectrum Globally May Impede the Uptake of Wi-Fi 6E

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By Andrew Spivey | 1Q 2022 | IN-6457

The current state of the global 6 GHz spectrum allocation for unlicensed Wi-Fi use is inconsistent, with countries belonging to one of three camps. This insight will discuss the implications of this trifurcation.

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The Ongoing Debate Over the Allocation of the 6 GHz Spectrum for Unlicensed Use

NEWS


In February 2022, the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) submitted a letter to the Australian Minister for Communications arguing that the country must set aside the full 1200 MHz of the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. This follows a late 2021 policy position paper by the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association (AMTA), which had recommended that the Australian Government reserve just the lower 500 MHz of the spectrum for unlicensed Wi-Fi, with the remainder going to licensed Cellular. This debate is ongoing in Australia, with talk of not making the final decision on the upper 6 GHz band until the ITU’s World Radio Conference in late 2023. This dispute between Wi-Fi and cellular mirrors debates that have been had and are ongoing in countries worldwide: how much, if any, of the 6 GHz spectrum should be allocated for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. The deliberations and inconsistencies in final allocations between countries have severe implications for the uptake of Wi-Fi 6E.

Current State of the Global Allocation of the 6 GHz Spectrum

IMPACT


The 6 GHz spectrum offers consumers a plethora of benefits over the legacy 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, ranging from faster throughput, lower latency, and a clean spectrum band with lower interference. The Wi-Fi Alliance first announced Wi-Fi 6E (Wi-Fi 6’s Extension into the 6 GHz band) in January 2020, and by mid-2020 Broadcom, Celeno (now part of Renesas), and Qualcomm had all launched Wi-Fi 6E chipsets. By the end of 2020, several access points were already on the market, and throughout 2021 and 2022 consumer Wi-Fi 6E devices have slowly trickled onto the market, including the recently announced Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus and Ultra. Yet, despite the availability of 6 GHz access points and devices, not all consumers will be able to utilize them due to the uneven allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum globally.

It is approaching two years since the US became the first country to allocate the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use in April 2020, and since then countries worldwide have chosen to adopt, or not adopt, the 6 GHz spectrum to varying degrees. Countries can be grouped into one of three camps based off their stance towards the 6 GHz spectrum. The first grouping is the ten countries that have followed the US’s lead and released the entire 1200 MHz of the spectrum (5925 – 7125 MHz) for unlicensed use. These countries are predominantly in the Americas, notably Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, but also include South Korea and Saudi Arabia. The second faction are the thirty-two countries which have chosen to release the only lower 500 MHz of the spectrum (5925 – 6425 MHz). The bulk of this group are in Europe, with the twenty-seven members of the European Union unanimously choosing to adopt this standard. The final of the three camps contains countries that have so far not allocated any of the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use. This encompasses the majority of Asia and Africa, including countries with very high levels of Wi-Fi compatible device penetration. As things currently stand, the there are no signs that these three divergent camps will merge in the near future.

How Will Consumers and Manufacturers Respond?

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The implications of the inconsistent 6 GHz spectrum allocation globally are many. One of the most obvious is that the transition to Wi-Fi 6E will be hindered in countries where the 6 GHz spectrum cannot be utilized. While some countries that have not allocated the 6 GHz spectrum might not have been in a position to adopt 6E, even if it were an option (many African nations still find Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 sufficient enough to serve their everyday needs), there are many Asian countries which appear ripe to harness the advances Wi-Fi 6E would bring, with the mainland ofChina being a salient example. In these countries, consumers will be resistive to pay a premium for a 6 GHz radio in products when the 6 GHz spectrum will not be available to them. Understandably, service providers in these nations would also never consider adopting Wi-Fi 6E in the absence of the unlicensed 6 GHz spectrum. Therefore, many consumers will instead choose to simply wait for Wi-Fi 7, where they can still take advantage of the technological advancements of the new Wi-Fi generation (Multi-Link Operation, Preamble Puncturing, etc.) on the legacy 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrum bands. As for those countries that have allocated just 500 MHz of the 6 GHz spectrum, the benefits of Wi-Fi 6E would too be less apparent. Compounding this is the fact that Wi-Fi 6E support is currently restricted to high-end devices (only the premium models of the new Samsung Galaxy S22 range will support 6E, whilst the standard model will not), meaning that 6E is not easily accessible to the majority of consumers. Recent announcements at CES and MWC, such as Qualcomm’s Wi-Fi 7 FastConnect 7800 chipset, have confirmed that the arrival of Wi-Fi 7 is imminent, meaning that it won’t be long before consumers can get their hands of Wi-Fi 7 devices, another incentive for them to bypass 6E and transition straight to Wi-Fi 7.

This inclination to skip Wi-Fi 6E will also be felt by many access point Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). The trifurcation of the 6 GHz spectrum allocation can only act to add to the complexity for businesses, as they will not wish to have to create multiple Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) for different markets with divergent spectrum requirements. Ultimately, they may conclude that waiting until the arrival of Wi-Fi 7, when more countries will presumably have access to the new spectrum band, and even those who don’t will be attracted by the technological advancements of Wi-Fi 7 itself, is a much safer bet. Furthermore, with Wi-Fi 7 just around the corner, many OEMs may choose to be the first to ship Wi-Fi 7 over playing catchup with Wi-Fi 6E.

Unfortunately, the uneven allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum will also impede Wi-Fi 7. The narrower 500 MHz spectrum band in Europe will also restrict channel bandwidths to an extent that users would not be able to take full advantage of the technological improvements of the next Wi-Fi generation (limiting them to one 320 MHz channel, compared with three that would be available with the full 1200 MHz). This will mean that the 6 GHz spectrum will be less capable of supporting the burden of the increased numbers of consumer devices. Furthermore, the uneven allocation will still pose a challenge to OEMs, as they may be required to create multiple SKUs for different markets, tailoring the feature offering of products to the specific region they are being sold into. Another possibility is that filter design or firmware will be used to limit transmission within the sections of the 6 GHz spectrum band that have been deemed off limits in the specific market that it has been shipped to.

 

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