Free, unlicensed 6 GHz spectrum works for all — users, mobile operators, tech firms

Mobile broadband and WiFi are complementary services; cellular operators must abandon the quest to annex every bit of the spectrum expanse

6 GHz spectrum
Will keeping 6 GHz spectrum unlicensed adversely affect telecom operators? Absolutely not. Will they be starved of spectrum if they are denied privileged access to 6 GHz bands? Most certainly not. Representational image

A controversy is brewing over how to allocate 6 GHz spectrum — whether as licensed spectrum auctioned off to would-be users, typically mobile telephony service providers, or as open, unlicensed spectrum, free for anyone to use, although the most likely users are providers of WiFi services.

Mobile service providers and their association, the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), want this band of spectrum to be licensed so that it can be used for providing 5G services when their currently allocated spectrum bands for that purpose are fully occupied and they need more spectrum.

Tech companies such as Google, Meta and Amazon, as well as the Broadband India Forum, seek to keep the 6 GHz band unlicensed for the next generation WiFi service, WiFi 6E.

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The controversy is wholly unnecessary. The obvious answer is that 6 GHz or 6,000 MHz spectrum should be left unlicensed, on which to expand the latest generation of WiFi services. Mobile operators stand to gain by leaving the spectrum open for superfast WiFi services to operate. This way, consumers who subscribe to their 5G mobile telephony services are not prevented from experiencing the real speed of 5G services on account of slow WiFi, which typically is how devices are linked from the router, which, while connected to an optical fibre cable in a city, could well be connected to a 5G network in smaller towns and rural India.

Complementary, not competing services

Mobile broadband and WiFi are complementary services, not really competing ones. Cellular operators should accept this logic and abandon this particular quest to annex every bit of the spectrum expanse the eye cannot see.

Most of us who have taken a broadband connection recently have routers that work on the standard 802.11.AC. These work on the unlicensed spectrum bands in the 5,000 MHz or 5GHz. The technicians who set up the router typically give it a name with the suffix 5G. This 5G is not to be confused with the 5G of mobile telephony, where the G in 4G and 5G stands for Generation.

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The G in the WiFi router’s name is short for the bandwidth on which it operates, 5GHz. The previous generations of WiFi were 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. These standards are specified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, or IEEE. 

When a standard superior to AC was introduced as 802.11 AX, the engineers decided to call it WiFi 6, and the previous iteration, WiFi 5. The AX standard was improved further to a new version dubbed WiFi 6E. This standard of superfast connectivity with the router works on the 6,000 MHz or 6 GHz band. Download speeds reach tens of Gigabits per second (Gbps).

The cellular operators are using a none-too-subtle blackmail tactic to press their case to licence the spectrum, instead of making it free for WiFi. The auction proceeds of the 6Hz band could be worth trillions of rupees (a trillion has 12 zeros, which means it is equal to one lakh crore). 

Parallels with ‘2G scam’

To be charged with causing loss to the exchequer to the tune of trillions of rupees is a potent risk, ever since former CAG Vinod Rai came up with his irresponsible estimates of a notional loss to the exchequer running to ₹1.76 lakh-crore in the so-called 2G scam.

The Supreme Court had cancelled 122 telecom licences, presuming mala fide, even as the charge of wrongdoing in the allocation of 2G licences was being prosecuted in the trial court. The trial court has since dismissed the charge, and the government has appealed against that verdict, with little success so far. But the political narrative of a major scam of causing enormous loss to the exchequer lives on.

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However, the government should not succumb to this blackmail and champion the public good in having superfast broadband available, at the least expense, to the largest numbers. That means keeping the 6 GHz spectrum unlicensed.

Will this adversely affect the telecom operators? Absolutely not. Will they be starved of spectrum if they are denied privileged access to 6 GHz bands? Most certainly not. In fact, 5G and further improvements would be best served by combining the low frequency bands currently wasted on 2G services, with the so-called millimetre wave bands (mmWave) starting at 24 GHz and going up to 76 GHz.

Will mobile telephony service providers face a commercial challenge from pure WiFi operators? In most cases, WiFi operators drive additional business to telecom operators.

Linking WiFi and 5G services 

A WiFi service provider needs the data from WiFi users to be transmitted from the location where the WiFi router is located to the larger network. This backhaul is provided, in most cases, by the telecom operators. Once 5G is fully deployed and its technological capabilities fully utilised, for a great many locations of low-density data traffic, it is likely that 5G would be more cost effective for backhaul than laying optical fibre cable or using satellite links.

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So, the greater the spread of fast WiFi, the greater the demand for 5G services, and the greater the revenue of the telcos. And, if the high speeds that 5G mobile transmission is capable of are not transmitted to the end-user who accesses the internet via a router connected to 5G backhaul, because of relatively slow WiFi, 5G services would look less appealing to the consumer than it should.

Mobile services are called for when mobility is essential, when fixed services are not sufficient. If fixed services are all that a location needs, and these are provided most cost-effectively by the latest generation WiFi, then that is what the economy needs.

From whatever angle you look at the debate on how to allocate the 6 GHz spectrum, the answer is clear: without licence.

(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)