Preparing Wi-Fi for the Next Crisis

Grappling with the crisis wrought by COVID-19 has demanded something new and challenging of every American, but one thing is clear: The nation’s connectedness is a source of strength. Be it for purposes of remote medical diagnosis and treatment, familial communication or working from home, the impact of necessary but psychologically and materially taxing physical isolation has been blunted by Wi-Fi.

The Federal Communications Commission, to its credit, early on sought to shore up the ability of Americans to stay connected in the middle of crisis when it called upon service providers to forego service stoppages related to missed payments. The near-term impact of that step will prove enormously important. In the long-term, however, more must be done to ensure that Wi-Fi access is technologically sustainable in times of crisis and need.

Consider that, since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Wi-Fi use is up — way up. According to AT&T, Wi-Fi call volumes have grown by 100 percent. Plume, an enterprise Wi-Fi provider, reports that the number of Wi-Fi connected devices being used in homes has increased, at minimum, 50 percent. The numbers are even more telling in areas that have suffered the most acute COVID-19 outbreaks. In Seattle and San Francisco, device numbers are up by 90 and 85 percent respectively. The need for reliable and robust Wi-Fi networks is clear, and that means finding complementary uses for existing bands of radio spectrum.

Radio spectrum, the scarce resource upon which Wi-Fi networks rely to transmit and receive data, was once allocated without particular regard for its highest and best use. Over time, as technologies have evolved and use cases have changed, this has resulted in spectrum-induced bottlenecks. That challenge would be particularly problematic in the context of Wi-Fi, upon which an ever-growing number of devices are dependent, even in non-crisis periods. Fortunately, there is room for innovation that can accommodate both the activities of incumbent users and the nation’s need for reliable Wi-FI in the 6GHz band.

The 6GHz band holds great promise, in part because it offers the ability to use wide channels. Unlike the spectrum available for Wi-Fi applications today, 1200MHz of contiguous spectrum exists in the 6GHz band, meaning that it can accommodate more devices and greater speeds. For users, in concrete terms, Wi-Fi with access to the 6GHz band is not only two to three times faster but is also more flexible. It means everything from high-quality video chat with family members to miniaturized augmented and virtual reality applications with serious battery life.

Yet, critics contend that complementary use of the 6GHz band will encumber or interrupt vital activities by virtue of the interference that Wi-Fi devices might cause. Such concerns appear reasonable on their face, but have been met head-on by the FCC.

In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC has sought to achieve sustainable complementary use by making the interests of incumbent users of the band primary. It has proposed specific restrictions on the operation of Wi-Fi devices particular to their intended use. For instance, in all cases, Wi-Fi devices in the 6GHz band would be limited in their broadcast power. Not only that, but they are also likely to be limited in their physical design to ensure that they cannot be used outside. Out of a further abundance of caution, some devices will be made to employ frequency coordination technology to create spectral “no fly zones” around incumbent activities. As proposed by the FCC, the 6GHz band would become one of the most carefully protected in history.

We need to ensure that the nation’s communications infrastructure is on firm footing. As we contemplate the needs revealed during this crisis, this means moving to unleash the next generation of Wi-Fi enabled technologies. The next step in that process is for the FCC to allow Wi-Fi into the 6GHz band. The sooner it does so, the better.

Ian Adams is the vice president of policy for TechFreedom.

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