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Wi-Fi industry looks forward to next-generation standard with 6 GHz spectrum

While the race to build next-generation 5G wireless networks has captured the attention of politicians around the globe, the next generation of Wi-Fi could be coming soon to the U.S.

At Wi-Fi Now USA 2019, an event for Wi-Fi executives and enthusiasts, many spoke of the opportunities of the new standard, known as Wi-Fi 6, to clear up congestion issues and enable Wi-Fi to better compete with 5G.

While home Wi-Fi networks today primarily operate in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted in October 2018 to proceed on a notice of proposed rulemaking that would free up as much as 1200 MHz of spectrum for use by unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz band. Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed spectrum.

Should the FCC move forward with opening up the spectrum for Wi-Fi, "I think it's going to set off a surge in innovation, in startups, in businesses — big and small —making uses of this that we've not seen before," said Claus Hetting, CEO of Wi-Fi NOW, in a May 14 interview at the conference. He pointed to improved use cases for Wi-Fi with data-hungry technology such as augmented reality, virtual reality and 4K video.

Hetting also said the additional spectrum could help Wi-Fi differentiate itself from 5G technology and further dominate in its traditional space: the home.

"Anything indoors is really Wi-Fi territory," Hetting said. "This is the stronghold of Wi-Fi — that's going to be strengthened even further with the 6 GHz [spectrum]."

Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the technology and certifies Wi-Fi products to meet technological standards, also spoke highly of the potential of the proposed 6 GHz spectrum, though he noted that the true potential of Wi-Fi 6 will not be fully known until the 6 GHz band is opened up for unlicensed use.

A combination of factors has led to congestion in the current Wi-Fi bands. In addition to the explosive growth of Wi-Fi-connected devices and networks, consumer demand for higher speeds and the injection of certain cellular traffic into Wi-Fi spectrum have added to congestion issues.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who spoke at the conference, noted that Wi-Fi carries more than half of today's internet's traffic.

"It has arguably kept cellular networks afloat by reducing the traffic load on those networks," Pai said during a keynote.

Asked where the agency is in its process to determine what to do next with the 6 GHz spectrum proceeding, Pai said the FCC needs to keep talking to industry representatives about ways to address concerns from incumbent users of the band, which currently supports utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul services. Should those concerns be resolved, Pai said the band could offer "a boost for Wi-Fi that we've never seen before."

Public safety groups, in particular, have expressed concerns about potential interference if the 6 GHz band is opened to unlicensed use. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, for instance, told the FCC in a filing that it has concerns that "the proposed unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band will cause harmful interference to public safety operations."

Pai signaled that the FCC is also looking at opening up more spectrum for Wi-Fi in the mid-band spectrum range. In particular, he identified the 5.9 GHz band, which he says had 75 MHz reallocated in 1999 for a technology designed to allow car-to-car communications, as one that might be ripe for transformation. Pai said the agency should open up a rulemaking to seek comment on different proposals for the 5.9 GHz band's future.