Is the future of 6GHz hybrid?

By Egle Markeviciute, Head of Digital and Innovation Policies at the Consumer Choice Center.

Is the future of 6GHz hybrid?
(c) Shutterstock

Although both mobile operators and the Wi-Fi industry declared victories following the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai last December, the agreement allows for both licensed and unlicensed operations in the 6GHz band. This differs from the two most prominent schools of spectrum, American and Chinese, where the 6GHz spectrum is predominantly allocated to Wi-Fi services or 5G. However, it aligns with the European strategy of facilitating coexistence between International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) and Wi-Fi technologies.

Among the countries that have delicensed both the upper and lower 6GHz bands are the United States, Canada, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. The other group, which includes the European Union, the United Kingdom, and many others has delicenced only the lower 6GHz band. Conversely, China allocated a significant portion of its 6GHz spectrum to 5G in 2023, positioning itself at the forefront of enabling 5G (and, eventually, 6G) technology.

The EU considers the allocation of the 6GHz band crucial for boosting 5G deployment and aims for a hybrid solution where Wi-Fi and International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) can coexist. Final decisions are expected by 2026, with Europe likely providing early insights into the technical feasibility of this coexistence.

Proponents of delicensing the 6GHz band argue that it enables the use of spectrum bands more flexibly, without the constraints of specific services. They emphasize the preference for Wi-Fi over 5G in home internet settings and suggest that delicensing Wi-Fi could lower internet costs in remote areas, as Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E use existing, therefore less expensive technology. Additionally, they point to Wi-Fi 6E's capacity for speeds up to 9.6 Gbps, three times faster than current standards, and its superior performance in crowded settings. Moreover, Wi-Fi 6E is noted for its energy efficiency (attributed to built-in power-saving features) and adaptability to challenging geographical landscapes.

Proponents of allocating the 6GHz spectrum to International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) and specifically to 5G highlight different benefits. They stress that such an allocation would significantly increase bandwidth and capacity, leading to improved quality of service. 5G, designed to deliver speeds up to 10 Gbps, would benefit from the 6GHz with reduced latency, which is crucial for applications that require real-time responsiveness, such as autonomous driving and telemedicine. Additionally, 5G supports up to a million connected devices per square kilometer, an essential feature for the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.

Both technologies have specific uses: Wi-Fi 6 E is ideal for smart homes, virtual reality, and large-scale events, while 5G excels in autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and industrial Internet of Things applications. Each has its competitive advantages. 5G typically covers a more comprehensive geographical range than Wi-Fi 6E and can be used both indoors and outdoors. 5G offers slightly faster speeds, whereas Wi-Fi 6E requires less investment in infrastructure.

As governments worldwide ponder the future of the 6GHz spectrum and experts question the benefits versus the costs, many political questions need to be addressed.

Providing affordable connectivity in remote areas is a complex challenge, and there are no clear answers to the best solution. In the past, smaller and geographically flatter countries have found straightforward solutions for mobile connectivity, such as state investment in backbone infrastructure and facilitating last-mile access for commercial use. Larger countries with complex topography face challenges on an entirely different scale, especially in developing markets.

Egle Markeviciute, Head of Digital and Innovation Policies at the Consumer Choice Center

The debate around 5G vs. Wi-Fi 6E’s roles in bridging the digital divide should not overlook local market specialization and economies of scale. While some markets may boast stronger tech companies, others traditionally have more robust mobile operator networks. Existing investments in infrastructure, whether in 5G or Wi-Fi, should also not be ignored.

Although the technologies differ, and some are claimed to be more cost-effective than others, understanding the final balance sheet is challenging, particularly when security concerns are factored in.

The arguments for return on investment regarding innovation and economic benefits are similar for both technologies. Proponents of using the 6GHz spectrum for both mobile and Wi-Fi highlight similar benefits, such as the accelerated development of IoT, virtual reality, augmented reality, smart cities, and related technologies. Generally, users, whether individuals or industry representatives are technologically agnostic as long as the service is reliable, secure, and affordable. Considering the wide range of pros and cons associated with each, it seems more feasible for both technologies to coexist rather than compete.

Global competition and local market structure are key in shaping the future of spectrum allocation, a decision that extends beyond technology and involves determining the extent of market access for global competitors.

This is vital for significant markets such as the US and the European Union. The US's move to delicense the 6GHz band, driven by affordability and local market considerations, could unintentionally pave the way for countries like China to advance and possibly lead in the 5G and eventual 6G sectors. China's strategy to utilize the 6GHz band for 5G might provide it with an edge, potentially optimizing its networks for upcoming technologies.

Complex questions demand wise solutions, and for most countries, the regulatory approach should support the development of both technologies, fostering an environment conducive to technological advancement, innovation, and consumer choice.

While the WRC-2023 has partially answered the question, the implementation details remain crucial. The critical question now is how and to what extent the world's governments are prepared to ensure a harmonious, hybrid approach for the future of the 6GHz spectrum allocation. The world will closely watch the EU's pioneer efforts to accommodate both technologies and find advanced ways to manage the coexistence of 5G and Wi-Fi.

Promoted by the Consumer Choice Center

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.