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How Will the Latest Wi-Fi Tech Affect Local Areas?

The FCC's decision to open up spectrum for Wi-Fi 6 technology may significantly increase broadband access. However, utilities and public safety are afraid their communications may be compromised.

Shutterstock/N.Vector Design
Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t have to delay opening up the 6 Gigahertz spectrum band for unlicensed Wi-Fi. 

The court’s decision was in response to a request from public safety and utility organizations, as well as other groups such as AT&T, to grant a stay to the FCC order to open up the 6GHz band. These groups contend that the FCC’s decision could result in interference to the critical operations of entities that currently rely on that particular band. 

The court said it will still consider the case against the FCC’s order, despite its denial of the request to postpone the order. 

In April, FCC commissioners unanimously decided to allow the 6GHz band to be utilized for Wi-Fi 6, “the next generation of Wi-Fi.” What this means for states and local areas is that Wi-Fi 6 technology can be added to the list of potential solutions for broadband access. 

“Extending Wi-Fi into the 6GHz spectrum band can provide more Wi-Fi capacity than all the other bands put together,” Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) CEO Tiago Rodrigues told RCR Wireless News. “What’s more, using Wi-Fi 6 technology … will deliver higher speeds, low latency and service levels that are equivalent to 5G networks and be able to support the widespread, low-cost, use of advanced business, industrial and consumer applications.”

WBA, which represents a wide variety of companies, has test results that back up Rodrigues’ claim that Wi-Fi 6 “will rewrite the rules of what is possible.” The tests, which were conducted in San Jose, Calif., demonstrated that Wi-Fi 6 can achieve very high speeds, up to 2 Gbps, and low-latency connections.  

Wi-Fi 6 devices have been slowly rolling out this year, according to CNET. In other related news, Google requested permission from the FCC in August to perform a series of 6GHz tests in 17 states. 

The promise of 6Ghz Wi-Fi is counterbalanced by an increased risk of interference to utility and public safety activities, said Rob Thormeyer, a spokesperson for Utilities Technology Council (UTC), which filed a petition against the FCC.

“[The FCC’s decision] is sort of an unforced error,” Thormeyer told Government Technology. “We’re creating this new risk that didn’t exist before, and that only exists because of this decision. We believe that there are other spectrum bands that the FCC could have targeted for Wi-Fi use.”

Thormeyer explained that UTC believes expanding Wi-Fi is a great idea, just not to the 6GHz band. Utilities use the 6GHz band for mission-critical communications. Interference could negatively impact the monitoring and repair of power lines, for example. As such, stakeholders in the utilities industry are experiencing a great deal of anxiety about the FCC’s decision.

“Our concern is you’re going to have millions and millions of devices out there that will be impossible to track,” Thormeyer said. “The end user is not going to know that it’s potentially going to interfere with mission-critical communications.”

Thormeyer also pointed out that many utilities are already looking at re-engineering their communications systems — a process that can take five to 10 years — because of this potential threat. The problem is that some utilities may not be able to build extra towers, especially if they’re operating in areas with a lot of federal land. 

“It’s not easy to site anything anywhere anymore,” Thormeyer said. 

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) is also against the idea of opening up the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi. Due to ongoing litigation over this matter, APCO declined an interview with Government Technology. However, APCO’s filings with the FCC illustrate the fears of the public safety sector. 

“Public safety agencies use the 6 GHz band for mission critical systems that support operational needs such as dispatching first responders and maintaining voice communications during incidents,” an August 2020 APCO filing said. “Disruption to these systems could have dire consequences. Assistance to the public could be delayed. Law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians, and firefighters might lack the ability to transmit emergency calls for assistance and other information essential for protecting life and property.”

In an official statement, FCC Chair Ajit Pai said appropriate steps are going to be taken to prevent interference on the 6GHz band. 

“The microwave services that already use this band are critical to the operations of utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul operations,” Pai said. “And we are ensuring that those incumbents are protected by requiring the use of automated frequency coordination [AFC] systems, which will only allow new standard-power operations in areas that will not cause interference to incumbent services, and by placing conservative power limits on low-power indoor operations.”

Thormeyer suggested that AFC systems are fine in theory, but no tests have been done to alleviate fears that interference could occur. 

“We haven’t been able to do the testing… We still don’t have a device to test against,” Thormeyer said.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.