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What is the 6GHz Frequency Band? Why Are Telecom and Tech Companies Fighting Over It?

Dec 26, 2020 2:42 PM 6 min read

Since Bell invented the telephone in 1876, progress in wireless technology has only looked forward and further. With the advent of Wi-Fi in the 1990s, the internet underwent a paradigm change in networking and communication.

Fast Forward to 2020: A pandemic pushes the population into indoor confines and bars social gatherings. Naturally, people's reliance on remote and digital communication is amplified like never before.

In fact, the Big Tech and Telecom companies have built and expanded their business largely by capitalising on this digital reliance of consumers.

Recently, eight tech companies jointly appealed to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to initiate a consultation process and enable delicensing of the coveted 6GHz spectrum band in India as soon as possible.

What does this mean and what are the stakes involved? Let's find out.

What is the 6GHz Band?

The Wi-Fi services that we currently use (in most countries) are mostly broadcast over two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. While these two function at optimal speed levels, with the increasing use of wireless devices and the corresponding spectrum brackets in which they function, it is suffice to say that airwaves are getting more crowded and spectrum is getting congested.

This is where 6GHz comes in. It is a much faster band that accommodates a far wider spectrum space. To be exact, it quadruples the total space available to traditional Wi-Fi. It also supports an internet speed of approximately 10 Gbps.

The maximum achievable mobile broadband speed in India is presently 100 Mbps. If the 6GHz band is employed commercially, it is likely to support a speed 100 times faster. 


Why Exactly Is It NOT Being Employed, then?

Three Reasons.

First, speculative speed. Even if the 6GHz band is estimated to be 100 times faster, theoretically, the top speed acquired in it could very well mimic that of  5GHz Wi-Fi. The difference lies in the congestion of waves. 5GHz has limited spectrum availability which impairs it from generating large and powerful Wi-Fi signals.

This brings us to the second reason, licensing. 

6GHz is extensively used by satellites (including VSATs) currently for connecting broadcasting channels and providing data connectivity. The Indian telcos, in fact, even use some of the 6GHz spectrum for backhaul (connecting towers) purposes in addition to the Department of Space, which also uses a slice of it. However, they still mostly transmit narrowband data used to conduct POS transactions, transfer RFID data, VoIP information etc.

Hence, licensed mobile operators (who are accredited for use through public auctions of spectrum) do not yet possess the credentials to use this band. However, if the Government delicenses it for Low Power use (indoor-only routers etc.), it is expected to be greatly beneficial from a data-liberation and revenue-generation perspective.

But then again, offering delicensed spectrum for use to the general public comes with its own issues like unregulated data consumption, privacy concerns, data-security issues etc. Which bundle up together as the third limitation on the widespread employment of 6GHz band.


Telcos versus Tech Companies

In April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US telecom regulatory body, opened up a huge chunk (1,200MHz) of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. This was considered a remarkable decision by tech companies since it freed up a lot more airwaves for broadcasting Wi-Fi signals.

This will ultimately boost digital penetration and incorporation of more smart devices among the population, correspondingly enhancing mobile internet usage and widening the revenue base of companies like Facebook and Google.

This is what brings us to their appeal addressed to the TRAI mentioned at the beginning of this premise. Big tech companies are advocating a similar FCC-like overhaul and delicensing process in India, which will conveniently also promote the expansion of WiFi-6 technology. (We'll get to this shortly).

On the other hand, Indian telecom companies like Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea are offering their own narrative in support of strictly regulated 6GHz spectrum allocated to only licensed telecom service providers like themselves.

Their argument is based on the lines of commercial exclusivity to keep out unlicensed operation of entities in a wild west-like territory. Furthermore, telcos believe that 6GHz should be treated as an alternative to deploy 5G (in addition to 3.5GHz that is expected to be used) rather than opening it up for Wi-Fi.

This makes sense when analysed from a value-chain perspective which, by status quo, is enjoyed by the telcos. The supposed overreach of tech companies aiming to take control of the connectivity layer in the telecom industry could hamper business for the telcos. Not to mention, more is the spectrum available for telcos, lower should be the competitive pressure in the auctions, and lower should be the  cash outflow. This is all the more important as 5G is upon us! 

It is fairly evident that India’s connectivity and mobile internet story has a meaningful growth runway. And this why the much-hyped business amalgamation narratives seen in the telecom space in India today is hardly a surprise. After Facebook picked up a 10% stake in Reliance Jio earlier this year, Amazon was reportedly contemplating the same in Airtel as was Google in Vodafone Idea. The tech world's intent seems clear: Marry us or stare down the barrel of a shotgun!


The Other Angle of the Spectrum: Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest Wi-Fi specification standard which operates between the 1 and the 6GHz frequency band and provides greater speed as well as better connectivity.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, which is a global certification standard in network communications, recently amended the Wi-Fi 6 into Wi-Fi 6E. What distinguishes the new standard is its compatibility with 6GHz frequency spectrum and the enabling operation of correspondingly compatible wireless equipment.

By pairing up 6GHz spectrum to Wi-Fi 6E devices (the first of which are expected to roll out by the end of 2020), 14 more 80 MHz channels and seven extra 160 MHz channels can be offered up for using high-bandwidth applications (e.g. HD TV, streaming, virtual reality etc.)


Where Does This Leave Us In the Regulatory Frame?

There is increasing global demand for delicensing the 6GHz spectrum. After the US, the 27 countries of the EU have followed suit by releasing 480 MHz in the 6GHz band. 

Compliance with delicensing is also in line with the Supreme Court's directive of "formulating policy measures in public interest for allocation of natural resources (i.e. Spectrum airwaves), without value-maximising and inequitable processes like auction".

However, with the stiff opposition from telcos, it is uncertain how the regulatory pathway for 6GHz spectrum allocation will be paved in India.

There is also an added consideration of 5G cellular technology which, in the view of many, is supposed to be involved in a zero-sum game with Wi-Fi technology. Once 5G is integrated with 6GHz spectrum use, along with Wi-Fi 6E, the former's individual, external and metered data usage will be in conflict with the single-point, multi-device, internalised network of Wi-Fi.

For a more vivid imagination of logistics, imagine a thousand straw-sized pipes taking flow from a river as opposed to five large pipes joined to hundred other connecting pipes along its length.

Ultimately, it depends on the user's choice to determine the viability and preference of internet use, as long as you employ enough pipes to maintain a steady flow. 


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