closeup of a wireless router and a man using smartphone on living room at home ofiice , Concepts wifi connect .
closeup of a wireless router and a man using smartphone on living room at home ofiice , Concepts wifi connect .

Democracy & Technology Blog A Home Run For Better WiFi

There is a phenomenally better WiFi experience on the immediate horizon for those of us who may be working from home, consulting with our doctors from home or studying from home as a result of COVID-19.

WiFi 6 will give home and office networks as well as public hotspots the capacity to function at 5G-comparable speed and reliability. It will also enable a growing range of devices and appliances to connect to the Internet in vast numbers — and since some of these devices will have smaller batteries, WiFi 6 will help conserve battery life.

WiFi 6 and 5G are complementary wireless technologies that depend and build upon each other. 5G is more commonly accessed outdoors by most consumers — although this may begin to change in some places. Cisco predicts the number of public WiFi hotspots will reach 628 million globally by 2023 — a four-fold increase compared to 169 million hotspots in 2018.

In what would amount to a five-fold increase in the amount of electromagnetic spectrum available for WiFi and other uses, Chairman Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission is boldly and brilliantly proposing to unleash the entire 6 gigahertz band for shared, unlicensed use.

The 6 GHz band will support next generation wireless technologies including WiFi 6 and certain variants of 5G that use unlicensed spectrum under this proposal. The 6 GHz band contains 1,200 megahertz, which should be enough capacity to satisfy growing demand for the next several years, according to a Qualcomm study.

The 6 GHz band is ideal for next generation WiFi, both because its adjacent to the 5 GHz band — which accommodates existing WiFi services — and because its fairly underutilized by incumbent users.

WiFi services can share the entire 6 GHz band with the incumbent users without causing harmful interference. And since the incumbent users won’t therefore need to be relocated to another spectrum band — a process that can take years — the rollout of WiFi 6 can begin immediately. The technology itself is ready for deployment.

Unleashing a vast amount of additional spectrum for WiFi is a bonanza for consumers, who will get to share a valuable public resource at no cost. When mobile phone carriers pay billions of dollars for exclusive, licensed rights to use spectrum, they have no choice but to pass those massive costs along to consumers in the form of higher bills.

Some have argued for splitting the 6 GHz band between WiFi 6 and 5G technologies — since both face an urgent need for more spectrum. Chairman Pai’s proposal will result in much more efficient spectrum utilization overall, with less spectrum having to be set aside for things like guard bands to prevent interference and overhead signaling to enhance network performance.

Considering not only the amount of mid-band spectrum that will now be available for WiFi (5 GHz and 6 GHz), but also the proximity and contiguity of this spectrum, many more of the wide (160 megahertz) channels for which WiFi 6 was designed to operate most effectively are possible. Wider channels allow more simultaneous users to transmit and receive at top speed, in this case up to 10 gigabits.

5G services, the bulk of which operate on licensed spectrum, are an indirect beneficiary of this spectrum allocation, since WiFi networks play an indispensable role in relieving cellular network congestion. In fact, nearly 60% of global mobile data traffic will be off-loaded to WiFi by 2022, according to a Cisco projection cited by Chairman Pai.

Redeploying our nation’s electromagnetic spectrum assets where they’re needed most is one of the most important contributions the FCC makes to our country. It’s been 17 years since the commission allocated the 5 GHz band for WiFi, and Chairman Pai is to be commended for acting decisively to supplement that now.

He also deserves recognition for avoiding pressure to adopt a more modest and short term solution that would lead to a more fragmented and inefficient allocation of spectrum, which is a limited and valuable public resource. 

Less capable public servants typically shrink and hide from criticism. Pai — who seems to choose his battles carefully, as he should — appears to be willing to act decisively now and then when its appropriate.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.