6 GHz Spectrum is getting unlicensed in USA, UK and beyond

Last updated on November 23rd, 2020

6 GHz WiFi got a huge boost in July 2020 as UK regulators cleared unlicensed wireless usage in the 6 GHz spectrum. This follows the historic decision by USA’s FCC in April 2020 to release 1200 MHz of bandwidth in 6 GHz space for unlicensed use. This article takes a closer look at these 2 decisions and other developments around the world in the 6 GHz WiFi 6E space.

Why 6 GHz WiFi became a necessity ?

The world-wide explosion of WiFi applications

The global economic contribution of WiFi in 2018 was estimated to be about $ 2 trillion and is expected to grow to about $ 3.5 trillion in 2023. The market for Enterprise access points in 2019 was $ 6.2 billion as per IDC.

The importance of WiFi to both Enterprise and home consumers cannot be stated enough. It has become a bare essential to get things done at homes, offices, airports, cafes, stadiums, malls and other public spots. The rise of WiFi based IoT has further opened up whole new use cases and applications.

wifi economic impact
Value of WiFi’s Impact (Source: Wi-Fi.Org)

Teething issues with a limited bandwidth

Indoor WiFi had long been suffering from terrible overcrowding, both in Enterprise space and home use. While 2.4 GHz got saturated many years earlier, 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum is quickly getting congested as well and is as bad as 2.4 GHz band in busy office buildings/ multi-use spaces. Once clients and access points were made available in 802.11ac standard at affordable rates, WiFi users made an exodus from 2.4 GHz usage and took refuge in the 5 GHz band. Now 5 GHz WLAN average speeds are slowing down everywhere due to congestion, and has started giving nightmares to the IT team.

Ratification of 802.11ax or WiFi 6

For making WiFi more efficient within the limitations posed by the sparse spectrum, IEEE ratified the 802.11ax standard that can work in the 1 GHz – 6 GHz frequency range.

Called the “High Efficiency” standard, 802.11ax or WiFi 6 took some of the WiFi features that were age-old pain points in WiFi communications and made them better. For example for the first time ever, client communications can now be controlled by an Access Point through allocation of specific sub-frequency slots (called Resource Units) to specific clients. The Access Point will decide on the number of frequency slots allocated to each client based on client’s load requirements and all clients can send their data without waiting to take turns to communicate. In another post we had discussed this and other top features of WiFi 6 more elaborately.

Though this was a crucial step forward in making WiFi more effective, it was also an imperative to find additional bandwidth for an exploding Enterprise and domestic user base. On a non-overlapping basis, the whole world had access to only about 250 MHz of bandwidth in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz put together (excluding DFS). Though this amount of bandwidth could be beyond the imagination of the founding engineers of WiFi, it is simply not enough in 2020 to support the applications that have grown over time due to the parallel growth of the Internet, in no small part aided by WiFi itself.

USA opens up 6 GHZ unlicensed

Under this scenario the FCC of USA opened 1200 MHz of bandwidth to unlicensed use in April 2020 in the 6 GHz spectrum, from 5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz. This action is widely considered as a watershed moment for wireless data access. This decision just quadruples the amount of non-overlapping bandwidth that will be available for WiFi usage and opens up a whole new world for WiFi applications to explore and exploit.

In the USA, licensed incumbents are currently occupying the 6 GHz band, which is divided into 4 sub-bands that were “derived based on the prevalence and characteristics of incumbent licensed services that operate in the sub-bands” , as per FCC.

6 ghz wifi licensed incumbent list
USA 6 GHz licensed incumbents (Source: FCC)

This 6 GHz band is being majorly used for point to point wireless operations by commercial and private users, utility companies and public-safety agencies. It is used for services like rail network coordination, oil and gas pipeline management, electric grids, telephony service, television studio transmission linking, satellite linking for live news coverage etc.

The FCC did not want to trouble these critical incumbent licensed users of the 6 GHz band and therefore has made the below summarized order for unlicensed usage of the band.

  1. Unlicensed low power indoor usage across the whole 1200 MHz spectrum
  2. In 850 MHz of that spectrum inside the U-NII-5 & U-NII-7 sub-bands, outdoor unlicensed usage permitted at standard power under the control of an AFC system

The above order opens up 1200 MHz of bandwidth surrounding the 6 GHz wireless band for indoor WiFi access points. This means WiFi access can be made on 4 x non-overlapping spectrum that was ever possible, putting together 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. The low power nature of the allowed transmissions and the outer walls of the buildings are expected to take care of interference with existing 6 GHz licensed operators. This historic order will not only bring huge relief to Enterprise and home WiFi users, but will also enormously help IoT deployments.

6 GHz WiFi 6E appoved power levels
6 GHz WiFi 6E approved power levels in USA (Source:FCC)

UK Opens up 6 GHz Spectrum

UK’s Ofcom had opened consultations on 6 GHz spectrum from all stakeholders in January 2020 and continued the process till March 2020.

Following this, the UK has opened up 500 MHz of spectrum in the lower 6 GHz band for unlicensed use on July 24, 2020. Lower 6 GHz band is specified as the spectrum from 5.925 GHz to 6.425 GHz, which corresponds to the U-NII-5 sub-band. The power requirements will be EIRP of 250mW (medium power) for indoor and EIRP of 25 mW(very low power) for outdoor use.

The decision from Ofcom defines indoor use as “within a building,onboard an aircraft or in any other enclosed space with attenuation characteristics at least as strong as those of either a building or an aircraft”.

South Korea opens 6 GHz band

On Oct 15th, 2020, South Korea de-licensed the whole 6 GHz band for unlicensed wireless operations. Like the USA, 1200 MHz of continuous chunk of bandwidth has been opened up. By this, South Korea has become the first Asian country and the 3rd country in the world to de-license the 6 GHz band.

Chile opens 6 GHz band

On Oct 22, 2020 Chile became the 4th country in the world after USA, UK and South Korea and the 1st country in South America to exempt license for wireless spectrum in the 6 GHz frequency band. Chile’s telecom regulator Subsecretaría de Telecomunicaciones de Chile (or) Subtel has fully opened 1200 MHz of bandwidth from 5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz like the USA. But the authority has allowed only indoor wireless communications in the band right now.

6 GHz WiFi traction in other Countries:

Brazil’s Anatel is expected to specify the technical conditions for using the 6 GHz band without license in the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2020. Europe is expected to de-license 6 GHz in early 2021. Thiswireless.com will be closely following these developments around the world.

WiFi 6E Certification and products

As 6 GHz spectrum becomes available in major markets around the world, the device manufacturers are expected to oblige with products by 4th quarter of 2020. Due to the huge chunk of bandwidth that is going to be available in 6 GHz unlicensed spectrum, Wi-Fi Alliance’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Kevin Robinson expects out-sized interest from both home and Enterprise users. He is looking forward to more than 300 million WiFi 6E devices in the market in 2021. He has further confirmed about certification of WiFi 6E products from early 2021.

WiFi 6E is going to truly unleash the next big leap in mass market wireless communication. As Kevin Robinson states, “6 GHz helps deliver the full potential of what Wi-Fi 6 was always designed to be,”