The right to use spectrum is turning into one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the country. Cellular carriers have been paying huge sums in FCC auctions to get the rights to use spectrum. Perhaps the biggest sign of the value of spectrum is that there is seemingly a lawsuit every time the FCC makes a spectrum decision by those who want to see the spectrum used in other ways.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently upheld the FCC’s April 2020 order that assigned 1,200 MHz of the 6 GHz spectrum band for public use. That order was challenged by a coalition of Apple and cellular carriers like AT&T. The challengers wanted some of the 6 GHz spectrum to be auctioned to those willing to pay the most for it – presumably the cellular carriers. Not surprisingly, the intervenors supporting the FCC decision were the big cable companies who take the most advantage of WiFi.
The original FCC order clearly supports the idea that the public needs better WiFi. The 6 GHz spectrum band will revolutionize the way we use WiFi in homes and businesses. WiFi performance is already slated to improve due to the new WiFi 6 technology. But adding the 6 GHz spectrum will drive performance to yet another level by adding seven 160 MHz channels to the WiFi environment.
The legal challenge followed the lines of other recent spectrum challenges that question the FCC’s technical assumptions used in making the order. Since this new spectrum band is open to everybody, including the cellular carriers – the challengers argued, among other technical points, that there will be too much interference to make the spectrum useful for cellular data.
The Court came down clearly on the side of the FCC. The court said that the courts owe ‘significant deference’ to the FCC and its technical staff in deciding complicated technical issues. Intervenors had raised the same interference issues at the FCC during the deliberation of the issue – and the courts were not having any rehashing of issues that the FCC had already considered.
The court did remand one minor issue related to interference back to the FCC raised by the National Association of Broadcasters about interference in the 2.4 GHz WiFi band. The FCC will revisit that issue.
The court decision finally frees up the 6 GHz spectrum for WiFi use. Vendors have assumed this would be ordered and have been building the capability to use the spectrum into devices over the last few years.
I think we’re going to look back at the FCC’s decision to expand WiFi and the Court’s backing of that order as the most important spectrum decision of our time. The current WiFi spectrum is overtaxed and growing busier by the day. This new spectrum will revitalize the WiFi distribution of bandwidth around the home and the office that we’ve all been wanting.
Industry vendors haven’t been sitting still and have already started to develop the next generation of WiFi that will create another big leap in performance.