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Telecom Fights Tech Over FCC Plan to Open Airwaves to Wi-Fi

March 10, 2020, 10:00 AM

Big Tech and Big Telecom are wrangling over a federal regulatory plan that would open up an unprecedented amount of airwaves to meet the nation’s Wi-Fi demand.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote before the end of April on a plan that may quintuple the amount of spectrum available to handle data from millions of Wi-Fi-connected smartphones, laptops, and other devices.

The plan, proposed in 2018, is backed by tech giants, including Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and Microsoft Corp., that say the additional spectrum is critical to alleviating data traffic jams and to fostering faster internet connections and new technologies.

But the wireless industry, including telecom carriers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc., has been increasingly pressuring the FCC to slice the spectrum band roughly in half between Wi-Fi and 5G mobile use.

The struggle over the highly-prized airwaves, which is playing out against the backdrop of the global race to 5G, shows the challenge the FCC faces over how best to put radio spectrum—a limited and highly prized resource—to best use.

“This is like a filet that is still on the table and so everybody is going after it,” Roger Entner, a wireless analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, said.

It’s unclear, weeks before a likely vote, whether the wireless industry has swayed the FCC to change its plans for the 6 GHz band, which is among the swaths of mid-band spectrum well-suited for 5G because it can carry lots of data over relatively long distances.

The band is now occupied by other entities, including electric utilities and first responders, such as police and fire departments. They are worried about interference from Wi-Fi.

Staff are preparing recommendations for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and a vote is likely at the agency’s April 23 meeting, two industry sources familiar with the commission’s deliberations said.

Wi-Fi v. 5G

Wi-Fi data runs on frequencies, known as unlicensed spectrum, that the FCC leaves open for public use. By contrast, wireless carriers operate their mobile networks using airwaves specifically licensed for them. Both unlicensed and licensed services are in need of more spectrum.

The FCC voted in October 2018 to seek public input on whether to free up all 1,200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed services like Wi-Fi. That would be a fivefold increase from the 233 MHz currently approved for such uses in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

Supporters, including tech companies, chipmakers, and cable providers, say the airwaves are needed to handle exploding Wi-Fi demand. The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. is projected to triple to 61.6 million in 2023 from 2018, while the number of Wi-Fi connected devices is estimated to increase to 3.4 billion from 2.2 billion over that same time frame, according to data from Cisco Systems Inc., which backs the FCC’s proposal.

“Permitting unlicensed use to share the 1200 MHz with 6 GHz incumbents holds tremendous potential for multi-gigabit wireless broadband in communities across the country, including in rural communities, and will benefit consumers as an important complement to 5G,” almost three dozen companies, including Cisco, Apple, Comcast Corp., and nonprofits such as Public Knowledge, wrote in a Feb. 11 letter to the FCC.

Wi-Fi supporters say it’s possible to have Wi-Fi-connected devices share the spectrum with utilities and other existing users. Companies including Broadcom Inc. have already built Wi-Fi chips that can operate on the 6 GHz band.

But wireless communications trade group CTIA argues that some of the prime, mid-band 6 GHz spectrum should be made available for licensed mobile networks—and that the U.S.’s lead in the global 5G race is at stake. So far, the U.S. has committed to opening up 350 MHz of mid-band airwaves in two auctions set for later this year. That’s less than other countries such as Japan, which plans to open up 1,000 MHz for 5G services, according to a CTIA-commissioned study by Analysys Mason.

“There’s an urgent need for mid-band spectrum and the FCC can use the 6 GHz band to make sure that both licensed and unlicensed services flourish,” said Scott Bergmann, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA.

The trade group, whose members including Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T Inc., is proposing that the FCC move to free up the lower 6 GHz band frequencies for unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi, and seek public comment on auctioning the upper band airwaves for licensed cellular use.

CTIA also proposes shifting incumbent users from their section of the 6 GHz band that would be auctioned off to carriers to the 7 GHz band. But that part of the spectrum is already designated for federal government use, and government agencies are hesitant to allow private sector users on their spectrum.

Tech companies say the full benefits of future Wi-Fi services, including lightning-fast speeds and ultra-low lag times, can only be achieved by opening up the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. Both tech and CTIA have been lobbying at the FCC for months, meeting with agency officials and submitting studies that back up their respective positions.

A Complex Outlook

Meanwhile, a parallel fight has developed between tech companies and electric utilities, first responders, TV broadcasters, and wireless carriers like AT&T that currently use the spectrum for various purposes.

Tech companies insist Wi-Fi devices will be able to share the spectrum without interference, but a host of incumbent users are demanding that the FCC put safeguards in place to ensure their services aren’t disrupted.

Electric utilities and fire and police departments across the country run private communications networks on the airwaves. TV stations use the airwaves for some broadcasts, while AT&T, T-Mobile, and other wireless carriers use the frequencies for some mobile network operations.

Pai has remained tight-lipped on how the FCC’s final plan will look, but he’s repeatedly expressed the need for more unlicensed spectrum, as he did at a tech conference in January.

“Our goal is to remove spectrum as one of the constraints on unlicensed innovation,” Pai said, “so that 20 years from now when we’re sitting here we’re going to look back at this time as the stone age of Wi-Fi.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com, Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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