A wide range of cellular companies is urging the FCC to allocate a portion of the 6GHz band for licensed 5G operations. But that proposal is facing heated opposition from a diverse set of opponents that stretch from cable companies like Charter to tech companies like Apple to network equipment companies like Cisco.
At the heart of the issue is whether -- and how -- the FCC might free up some of the spectrum in the 6GHz band. Right now companies like CenturyLink, AT&T and U.S. Cellular use the 6GHz band for wireless backhaul links, among other things. In fact, U.S. Cellular specifically makes heavy use of the 6GHz band for backhaul, counting a whopping 3,500 locations across 2,000 spectrum licenses that use either the 5.925-6.425GHz band or the 6.425-7.125GHz band.
But a range of tech companies -- including Apple, Broadcom, Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm -- have been pushing the FCC for more than a year now to allow unlicensed operations in the 6GHz band, specifically in locations that would not cause interference to incumbent users like CenturyLink and U.S. Cellular. Their main argument is that the 6GHz band could join the 2.5GHz and 5GHz bands in supporting WiFi.
"There is no disagreement that more spectrum capacity is needed to meet the rapidly growing demand for Wi-Fi," wrote the Wi-Fi Alliance in a filing to the FCC. "Increased capacity requirements are unsurprising based on the central role that Wi-Fi plays in the telecommunications infrastructure, a role that is only expected to intensify as more and new use cases for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies develop."
But the cellular industry is having none of that. Their basic argument? WiFi has enough spectrum, and the 5G industry needs more. Way more.
5G's spectrum needs
"In the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, the Commission designated a full seven gigahertz of millimeter wave ("mmW"), or high-band, spectrum -- the 64-71 GHz band -- for unlicensed operations, on top of the seven gigahertz that it had already made available for unlicensed at 57-64 GHz. And beyond the 14 gigahertz of mmW unlicensed spectrum, the Commission recently adopted an order in the Spectrum Horizons proceeding designating an additional 21.2 gigahertz of spectrum for unlicensed in the above 95 GHz bands," wrote CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, in its own recent filing to the FCC. "In contrast, the Commission has dedicated only 5.5 gigahertz of high-band spectrum for licensed use."
Not surprisingly, CTIA also pulled out the "5G is a national priority" argument to bolster its position.
"The Commission has made significant progress in repurposing low- and high-band spectrum available for exclusive use, flexible rights licensing in recent auctions, but access to licensed mid-band spectrum for 5G remains extremely limited," CTIA wrote. "By 2020, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and the UK will have available, on average, nearly 300 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G. For example, China assigned 460 megahertz of mid-band spectrum to three of its national carriers last year."
Thus, CTIA and wireless equipment vendor Ericsson are proposing that the FCC set aside the upper portion of the 6GHz band for licensed uses. They argue the agency should auction that spectrum out to companies like Verizon and AT&T, and use the proceeds from that auction to relocate any current 6GHz incumbent users into the 7GHz band.
"The 6 GHz band offers the Commission a unique opportunity to promote both licensed and unlicensed use of this valuable mid-band spectrum," Verizon wrote in its comments on the topic to the FCC. "Verizon agrees with those commenters who support an exclusive-use licensing regime in the upper portion of the 6 GHz band to help address the growing need for more licensed mid-band spectrum and favors a spectrum sharing regime in the lower portion of the 6 GHz band that permits unlicensed operations while protecting incumbent licensed services. With 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band, the Commission can provide meaningful new opportunities for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum use while ensuring that incumbent licensed services are protected or relocated, as appropriate."
Concurred T-Mobile: "To satisfy the growing need for mid-band spectrum and maintain the nation's leadership in the wireless industry, the Commission should also consider designating some of the 6 GHz band for licensed use."
Opponents rally against 6GHz auctions
The cellular industry's interest in grabbing some of the 6GHz band for licensed use is raising alarms among companies keen to access that full band without the need for expensive spectrum licenses.
"Charter disagrees with Ericsson's proposal to repurpose a portion of the 6 GHz band for flexible use licensed service," wrote Charter, the nation's second-largest cable company. "The Commission's adoption of Ericsson's proposal to permit licensed use in the 6.425-7.125 GHz band would result in the wholesale repurposing of the identified portion of the band, thereby leaving incumbents to be displaced and relocated. In addition, it would significantly limit the amount of spectrum potentially available to unlicensed users in the 6 GHz band; under Ericsson's proposal, four of the seven 160 megahertz channels in the 6 GHz band would be designated for licensed use. Such an approach would hinder the ability of providers like Charter to offer Gigabit Wi-Fi speeds using Wi-Fi 6 and other advanced Wi-Fi technologies, and deprive consumers from utilizing high bandwidth, high-speed services and applications, including augmented and virtual reality, at lower costs. Permitting unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band, however, will not require any displacement of incumbents or the need to clear the band. Opening the 6 GHz band to unlicensed users will simply expand shared usage of limited spectrum with no impact on existing users."
Cisco too blasted the auction proposal by CTIA and Ericsson as a "conceptual" idea that was not supported "with any detail, remains wholly undeveloped, and should not be given any further consideration."
A joint filing by tech companies including Apple, Google and Facebook made clear their distaste for the 5G auction proposal: "Neither CTIA nor Ericsson provide a concrete explanation of their plan. How will their proposed relocation occur? They do not offer any insights. What frequencies will displaced government systems use? There is no roadmap. How long will this process take? Clarity on this delay is conspicuously absent. Because they have not even tried to address these basic questions, CTIA and Ericsson have not provided the Commission with any way to reasonably evaluate their proposal. For this reason alone, the Commission should not pursue it."
It's also worth noting that Charter, Apple, the Wi-Fi Alliance and others also blasted a separate proposal from Qualcomm that calls for the FCC to allocate a chunk of the 6GHz band for technologies like standalone 5G NR-U. Qualcomm's proposal doesn't call for the 6GHz band to be auctioned for licensed operations, but instead asks the FCC hold the U-NII-7 chunk of the 6GHz band for unlicensed services that require coordination, like standalone 5G NR-U. Standalone 5G NR-U is basically a version of 5G that can be deployed into unlicensed spectrum.
"While Qualcomm claims this proposal is technology-neutral, it is not," Charter wrote. "Qualcomm's proposal would favor synchronized operations over asynchronized operations in this band. By requiring synchronized mode of operation, any technologies that currently do not employ synchronization would either be prohibited from or be provided second class treatment when operating in this band."
Finally, some existing 6GHz users urged the FCC not to make any changes to the band at all, at least not without some serious study first. "The City of Los Angeles makes extensive use of the 6 GHz band for vital public safety and critical infrastructure operations, and the record here is clear: those operations will be harmed if the Commission's proposal moves forward without extensive revisions," wrote the city of Los Angeles in its own filing.
An FCC focused on 5G
The FCC, for its part, continues to work to free up more spectrum for commercial uses, both licensed and unlicensed. Indeed, in a speech this week FCC Chairman Ajit Pai went to great lengths to boast of his agency's work to release more spectrum for commercial uses, including 5G.
"To promote U.S. leadership in 5G the FCC has been pursuing what we call the 5G FAST plan. The approach includes three key components: freeing up spectrum, promoting wireless infrastructure, and modernizing regulations," Pai said, according to a transcript of his remarks. Pai pointed to the agency's recently completed 28GHz auction, its ongoing 24GHz auction and its planned 37GHz, 39GHz and 47GHz spectrum auction plans.
"I'm pleased to report that the indicators suggest our 5G strategy is working," Pai noted. "This past month, Cisco released a report that said that three years from now, the share of 5G wireless connections in North America will be twice the projected rate for Asia. Notably, Cisco credits the U.S. government's policy decisions with America's leadership position."
But, in a comment that could be viewed as a win by the cellular industry in the 6GHz debate, Pai said his agency would continue to push the 5G narrative. "You can be assured that promoting U.S. leadership in 5G will be at the top of the FCC's innovation agenda for the foreseeable future," Pai said.