Unlocking the potential of Wi-Fi and spectrum sharing

By Martha Suarez
Martha Suarez, President of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance explains how Wi-Fi spectrum sharing can deliver better and more affordable connectivity...

This year, it’s more obvious than ever that internet access is no longer the luxury item it may have been in years gone by, but a necessity.

Throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, Wi-fi access has allowed us to stay connected in a number of previously unimaginable ways.

We have been able to see and talk to loved ones, continue to work when our offices are closed, educate our children although they can’t be in classrooms and, perhaps most importantly, stay occupied in numerous virtual conferences and entertained when we’ve been told to stay at home. 

Enhancing digital technology and the global proliferation of Wi-Fi access is important for both established and developing economies. The flexibility and benefits Wi-Fi brings to digital economies have proven to provide essential benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, as the struggles of this year eventually become a distant memory, the vitality of the internet will not. The expectations of consumers are increasing: we want fast connectivity, low latency and connection on more devices than ever. At the same time, we also care about affordability, especially after a year that has very much affected the economy across the globe. What’s more, as technology continues to develop, we will use the internet for more of our every-day needs, like smart homes and cars, upping the demand for broadband further still. 

In the case of rural and underserved areas, Wi-Fi has also become the first option for many people to access Internet and broadband access, at public hotspots when they are not able to afford a connection at their home or through a particular connection provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers. 

According to Cisco, more than half of the Internet connections start or end by a Wi-Fi connection. However, Wi-Fi networks congestion at the access point level is becoming an issue because access to license-exempt mid-band spectrum creates an artificial spectrum shortage; since the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2003 no new mid-band spectrum has been made available for Wi-Fi despite the exponential growth in the data traffic. Furthermore, the current Wi-Fi spectrum doesn’t offer sufficiently wide channels for newer applications and services. 

Wi-Fi 6 will enable new use cases for industrial IoT, smart homes and support for high-density deployments, to name a few, but access to wider channels is needed to support these new use cases.

License-exempt access to the 6 GHz band is required to meet this unprecedented demand and enable innovative use cases. With it, comes the opportunity for more effective spectrum use allowing support for new applications and laying the foundations for innovation.

This article will show the importance of Wi-Fi in the current situation as an efficient technology to provide broadband connectivity. It will argue that regulators and spectrum authorities are facing a crucial opportunity to enable better connectivity dedicating more spectrum for Wi-Fi. Finally, it will present some recommendations on how to realise the full potential of the new generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6E.

Licensed vs license-exempt spectrum access

It seems incredible to hear voices stating that license-exempt access technologies like WiFi are not innovative technologies (It is!, but more about that later). Those same voices seem interested in confusing readers indicating that the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance would like “to leave the impression that 3GPP based technologies are passé”. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The DSA promotes a balanced regulatory approach between licensed, license-exempt, and lightly licensed, to make unused spectrum available for broadband. An unbalanced approach may create artificial scarcity, which increases the cost of broadband access. The world can and should move away from a view of just licensed or license-exempt spectrum — coordinated shared spectrum and the cost and benefits should be considered in spectrum planning. 

The DSA is technology neutral and supports all shared spectrum technologies that promote co-existence. An example of it has been our active advocacy for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), a 3GPP technology in the 3.5 GHz band for LTE in the United States.

On the other hand, it is a fact that there are different and independent standardization organizations and that as well as 3GPP technologies, are developed to evolve over generations and provide a predictable migration path to address growing consumer requirements over time. They also evolve over generations and provide paths for updates. In the case of Wi-Fi, that evolution has led to Wi-Fi 6 standardization and that is why Wi-Fi technologies benefit from economies of scale and are currently being used by billions and are expected to continue growing. To weigh or qualify a standardization effort as superior to others is to ignore how global technology adoption works.

About 3GPP standardization, it is also important to mention that it is not only focused on licensed spectrum access and part of the standardization efforts have been on recognizing the possibilities of license-exempt access. So, at the end, the discussion shouldn’t be between licensed vs license-exempt spectrum access. 

Current spectrum frameworks need to recognize that both access schemes are complements. As it was recently stated by the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai: “Some suggest that Wi-Fi and cellular spectrum are rivals. But I believe freeing so much spectrum for unlicensed use will advance U.S. leadership in 5G technologies. For instance, Cisco projects that 59% of mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022. And cellular operators can improve their 5G mobile broadband services by using the 6 GHz band; 3GPP Release 16 will include a 5G New Radio specification for unlicensed spectrum, called 5G NR-U. So, to me, cellular and Wi-Fi spectrum are powerful compliments, not rivals.”

Wi-Fi 6E technology performance and evolution

A new Wi-Fi standard, IEEE 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, is enabling compatible devices to benefit from higher data rates, greater responsiveness, increased capacity, better performance in environments with many connected devices and improved power efficiency, as well as other improvements. 

By implementing Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), the transmission of multiple signals at one time is allowed, by splitting them and sending them over different frequencies. Alongside the upgrade that Wi-Fi 6 will bring to Multi-User, Multiple Input and Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology, there is an increase in the number of communication routes and the amount of data that can be transmitted.

With stronger connections, wider reach and lower latency, broadband usage across homes, businesses and leisure settings will be transformed. Tangible benefits for the end-user include the ability to use multiple devices without disruption due to speeds 30% faster than previously experienced, increased efficiency of battery life and better security on those devices. 

For effective use, three operating classes of the 6 GHz band have been identified: 

  • Very Low Power (VLP): devices which would be permitted to operate at very low power levels for indoor or outdoor use. They provide low latency and very high throughput over short distances. VLP portable usages are for example mobile AR/VR, UHD video streaming, high speed tethering and in-vehicle entertainment.
  • Low Power Indoor (LPI): such as an Access Point or client device, which would be permitted to operate for indoor use only. LPI use cases include residential Multi-AP/mesh networks, multiple dwelling units (MDU), single-AP networks, high-density enterprise networks, indoor public venues and industrial IoT.
  • Standard Power (SP): license-exempt devices operating at 36 dBm EIRP that are only permitted access to spectrum under the control of an Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system, which would establish exclusion zones where license-exempt devices could not operate. High throughput capabilities for outdoors and indoors. Relevant for rural connectivity.

Every use case provides benefits and regulators can decide on a case by case which operating classes they enable.

Wi-Fi 6 is already standardized by the Wi-Fi Alliance since 2019 and new devices, including Wi-Fi 6E routers, have been announced and we have recently seen the first Wi-Fi 6 chip certified by the FCC.

Research firm IDC has forecast that more than 316 million Wi-Fi 6E devices will enter the market in 2021 and shipments will rise rapidly over the next three years. 

Wi-Fi 6E can coexist with incumbent services in the 6 GHz band.

It is important to note that the 6 GHz band is already in use by a range of services, like fixed satellite services, fixed services and some mobile applications, for example electronic news gathering. License-exempt access will not only open the door to innovation by offering extra capacity but protect those that already use the band. There will not be requirements for spectrum clearance processes, that might be complex and expensive. It is really an efficient use of the spectrum. Protecting incumbents and at the same time enabling innovation.

License-exempt access is a decision that regulators can make on a national basis and is accepted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). During the DSA’s Global Summit this November, Mr. Mario Maniewicz, Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau at the ITU, outlined the ITU’s response to the effects faced by the unconnected in a post COVID-19 world, addressing the different technologies and initiatives that are best suited for providing connectivity during these difficult times; ITU-R is open to unlicensed access, enabling billions of people to use Wi-Fi networks and enjoy connectivity at home, at work and in public spaces. 

Low Power Indoor (LPI) and Very Low Power Portable (VLP) WAS/RLANs, such as those using Wi-Fi 6E, can coexist well with current incumbent operations and meet the required use cases as demonstrated in the CEPT studies in the 5925-6425 MHz frequency range. 

Like in Europe, the FCC in the United States concluded that LPI devices can coexist with incumbent services in the band without further mitigation measures. The studies in the United States were conducted in the complete 6 GHz band (5925-7125 MHz). In addition, the FCC enabled Standard Power devices, using an AFC system in order to manage coexistence with incumbent services in the 5.925-6.425 GHz and 6.525-6.875 GHz sub-bands. This system will coordinate outdoor deployments to ensure no interference will be inflected on the tens of thousands of point-to-point microwave links and other incumbents. Finally, the FCC is currently proposing enabling VLP operations through a further notice of proposed rulemaking.

The FCC claims that “Wi-Fi 6 will be over two-and-a-half times faster than the current standard and will offer better performance for American consumers. Opening the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use will also increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by nearly a factor of five and help improve rural connectivity.”

In ITU region 1, discussions are taking place about the future of the upper part of the 6 GHz band (6425 - 7025 MHz) because some countries are considering it for the use of International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT). This consideration is part of the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) agenda, item 1.2. There is no certainty around this possibility yet, but by the time of the conference we will know if it is technically feasible. Studies about the upper part of the band at WRC-23 cover only Region 1, so there will be no global harmonization for IMT anyway at the end of the conference, except possibly for the 7025-7125 MHz segment, depending on the studies and the interest of administrations.

In some country specific cases, these studies are particularly supported because they have restrictions to implement IMT solutions in the 3 GHz band. These cases are, however, sporadic and particular. Furthermore, if the 6 GHz band is considered as a candidate for IMT usages, administrations should be aware that mobile rural coverage would need higher power outdoor deployments, much higher than the power levels envisaged for SP license-exempt usages. For this reason, there is a risk that IMT outdoor deployments could interfere with fixed and fixed satellite links currently operating in the band –and may require relocation of existing operations which is not required with a license-exempt solution. It is important to note that those existing applications in the band are already crucial for connectivity. Studies within the ITU-R are just starting, and administrations should remain open minded when undertaking coexistence and sharing studies based on justifiable technical characteristics and realistic and agreed propagation characteristics. 

Wi-Fi is a great example of how global harmonization benefits economies of scale and final users. Plans for the license-exempt opening of the 6 GHz band are becoming ever-more prevalent, with final regulations adopted by the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Republic of Korea and Chile. And that’s not all: Germany is planning to open the band in 2021 and the European Commission Decision is likely to mandate by September 2021 Member States shall designate and make available 5945-6425 MHz for the implementation of WAS/RLANs. Wi-Fi 6E consultations have taken or are also taking place in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru, Argentina, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.

While worldwide momentum for the license-exempt access to the 6 GHz band builds, the potential to meet unprecedented broadband demand is hopeful, and the future for innovation is bright. 

Wi-Fi is a cost-efficient solution and suitable for affordable access

As a license-exempt technology offering very low barriers to entry, Wi-Fi serves as a platform for the creation of innovative business models that underpin unique services, while expanding access to communication services for mobile, fixed, and satellite networks through Wi-Fi hotspots.

Spectrum sharing capabilities of Wi-Fi technologies avoid time consuming, complicated and expensive clearance processes that are often required before any commercial usage of a frequency band by exclusive licensed systems.

Wi-Fi is a highly cost-effective wireless access technology due to ease of installation and user control over the network. According to Intel, the cost of licensing the necessary intellectual property for cellular 5G alone is 3x that of a Wi-Fi chipset, and the entire 5G cellular modem cost is 50x the cost of a Wi-Fi chipset. Support for a cellular connection can add as much as US $130 to the retail price of a tablet device.

What’s more, in regions where connectivity is sparse, Wi-fi is still vital for development, technological advancement and improving the livelihoods of citizens. To allow license-free use of the 6 GHz band therefore enabling Wi-Fi 6E, ensures accessibility to this technology without limiting its potential. 

Given that Wi-Fi service providers do not need to participate in auctions to license the spectrum, the technology is a very cost-effective form of connectivity. It could be argued that for network operators seeking to provide rural connectivity, there is no additional spectrum cost considering they would have already paid for the spectrum when they acquired a nationwide license, or that there is not any spectrum scarcity in rural areas. Indeed, that is true, the traditional model of exclusive use of spectrum over large geographical areas for extended terms provides little incentive for licensees to make their spectrum available for smaller, rural or competitive use cases. In such circumstances, licensees may not want to take on the transaction costs required to partition, disaggregate or sublease their license to a third party. More fundamentally, licensees may want to preserve optionality in the future to build out to less economically attractive areas, or even be motivated to stifle competition. The result is underutilization of spectrum and warehousing, often at the expense of the underserved and rural communities. Adoption of use-it-or-share-it rules would encourage licensees to put their spectrum to use more quickly, or absent that, make unused spectrum available for opportunistic uses or lessees on the secondary market.  

But coming back to the discussion about Wi-Fi, thanks in part to spectrum harmonisation, the global Wi-Fi ecosystem benefits from enormous economies of scale, enabling manufacturers to produce very cost-effective products. 

We have seen important public programs and initiatives to increase Wi-Fi hotspots like it is the case of the WiFi4EU in Europe, the WiFi4EU initiative aims to provide high-quality Internet access to citizens and visitors across the EU via free of charge Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces such as parks, squares, administrations, libraries, and health centres. It has revealed a strong and local demand for the expansion of Wi-Fi services in order to foster the local e-commerce economy, support tourism, and increase the availability of local public services to citizens.

But this type of initiatives occurs not only in Europe or in urban areas. If we refer to rural connectivity, cost-efficiency is best achieved by benefiting of scale inherent in globally adopted Wi-Fi standards, which mean lower cost of coverage for low-population density areas and lower cost of terminals. 

The ITU-D Study Group on Broadband development and connectivity solutions for rural and remote areas, in its Annual deliverable 2019-2020 has recognized that “Wi-Fi hot spots and local area networks, which can be installed at rural points of community activities, including shopping centres and university campuses, can serve a variety of users. These are also suitable for homes, where all family members can access Wi-Fi connectivity. Wi-Fi technologies are very effective if the backbone landing is not far from the locality and can be used to create a mesh network”. According to the report, in India, several rural areas have been connected using Wi-Fi, as a last-mile connectivity solution. In Zimbabwe the community information centres constructed by the universal services fund of the country use Wi-Fi technology. In Latin America, more than 19 universal service projects in the countries of the Pacific Alliance rely on Wi-Fi to deliver affordable broadband to rural and underserved.

Regulators and spectrum authorities are guided by public policy goals focused on providing broadband access to all their citizens, leaving no one behind. They recognize spectrum is the income for wireless access and always try to make the most efficient use of it. In this context, spectrum sharing technologies like Wi-Fi 6E, that make a more efficient use of the spectrum, while protecting incumbents and increasing affordable connectivity are being considered by regulators and spectrum authorities worldwide. 

This article has referred to the importance of Wi-Fi for affordable broadband connectivity. It described why providing additional spectrum access in the 6 GHz band (5925 – 7125 MHz) to support the deployment of Wi-Fi 6E will offer consumers one of the most anticipated advancements in affordable broadband connectivity to date. It is time to act now.

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