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Amid C-band demand, 5G proponents could turn to 6GHz next

Despite the fact that commercial Wi-Fi devices working in the 6GHz band have already begun hitting the market, there's growing noise in the 5G industry around pushing the technology into the 6GHz band.

That chatter has sparked consternation among some Wi-Fi proponents.

"There are big and practically unsurmountable reasons" why licensed 5G operations shouldn't be allowed in the 6GHz band, wrote Claus Hetting, CEO of the Wi-Fi Now, a Wi-Fi advocacy association. He also told EE Times that efforts to push 5G into the 6GHz band are also too little, too late.

Regardless, some 5G players are eyeing the 6GHz band as an ideal location for expanded operations.

"Discussions regarding 6GHz spectrum need to maximise its value and balance different uses: this is a priority band for mobile network operators," argued Brett Tarnutzer, head of spectrum for global 5G advocacy organization GSMA.

The issue received a jolt in December of 2020 when around two dozen 5G proponents – including Ericsson, GSMA, Huawei, Nokia, China Mobile, Orange, Telefonica and others – urged international regulators to consider supporting licensed 5G operations in the 6GHz band. They asked the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to discuss the issue at its next big meeting, the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in 2023.

"Even if this were adopted, the world would first need to wait three years before this is even considered," Hetting of Wi-Fi Now argued. "And even if some consensus is reached, it is very hard to see how it would be possible to move long-time incumbent users out of this band."

Indeed, in the US and the UK, regulators have already set aside much of the 6GHz band for unlicensed operations such as Wi-Fi. For example, the FCC voted unanimously last year to make 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band (5.9GHz to 7.1GHz) available for unlicensed use. "Opening the 6GHz 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," the agency wrote at the time.

The FCC's vote represented a setback to some players like Ericsson, Verizon and T-Mobile that had urged the FCC to set aside some or all of the 6GHz band for licensed uses, including 5G.

But the FCC's vote has taken on a new hue given the sky-high bids recently placed in the agency's ongoing auction of C-band spectrum (3.7GHz to 4.2GHz) for 5G. Overall bidding in the event Thursday passed $80 billion, making the auction the agency's biggest-ever spectrum event. In fact, it's now almost twice the size of the FCC's previous record-holder, the $45 billion AWS-3 spectrum auction in 2015.

Sizing up the 6GHz band

Given US operators' apparently explosive interest in midband spectrum for 5G, it's reasonable to assume they might turn their attention to the 6GHz band if they're unable to acquire the midband spectrum licenses they want in an auction.

For example, Verizon has already floated a proposal at the FCC to allow higher-powered 5G operations in the unlicensed 6GHz band. The operator is looking at using the 5G NR-U standard – which supports 5G operations in unlicensed spectrum – to potentially add capacity to its network in dense, urban areas.

Verizon and other US operators already do exactly this in the unlicensed 5GHz band thanks to the LAA standard for their 4G operations.

Whether 5G wends its way into the 6GHz band in the US or globally remains to be seen, but it's clearly something the 5G industry hasn't given up on. "Amid this period of change during the pandemic, the value of connectivity is as clear as ever," GSMA's Tarnutzer wrote.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the situation, the FCC announced on December 29, 2020, that it would consider 5G operations in the 12GHz band. The move would certainly please 12GHz license holders like Dish Network.

"All eyes are on the C-band auction for now," wrote Stefan Pongratz of research and consulting firm Dell'Oro Group in comments just prior to the FCC's 12GHz announcement. "But it won't be long before operators will need to go back to the shed and open up the toolbox."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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