The FCC has seemingly joined forces with the marketing arm of the cellular industry in declaring that the spectrum between 7–16 GHz is now considered to be 6G. Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel recently announced that the agency would soon begin looking at the uses for this spectrum for mobile broadband. Specifically, the agency will be looking at 550 MHz of spectrum between 12.7-13.25 GHz for what Rosenworcel characterized as airwaves for the 6G era.
This 7-16 GHz spectrum is already used for a wide range of purposes, including fixed point-to-point microwave links, radio astronomy, communications with airplanes, and various military uses. Probably the biggest current use of the spectrum is for communicating with satellites. Rosenworcel said the agency would consider ways to share some of the spectrum between satellite and terrestrial uses.
The use of the 6G description for this spectrum is a big departure from the recent past. It was just in 2019 when Verizon defined 5G to include the millimeter-wave spectrum as high as 28-39 GHz as part of 5G. I’m sure most of you remember the never-ending TV commercials showing cellphones receiving 1-gigabit speeds. Verizon and a few other cellular carriers had deployed millimeter-wave spectrum in downtown areas of a few major cities as a gimmick to show how fast 5G could be. Verizon labeled this as Ultra Wideband to distinguish it from the 4G LTE spectrum that Verizon and others were starting to label as 5G.
It has to be confusing to be a cellular customer because I try to follow this stuff, and I can’t keep up with the cellular marketers. When Verizon used millimeter-wave spectrum and labeled it as Ultra Wideband, the company flashed a 5G UW icon to users to denote having access to the superfast speeds. But I’m hearing that people are now getting the 5G UW icon when connecting to Verizon’s C-Band spectrum, which is mid-range spectrum between 3.7-4.2 MHz.
The funny thing about everything that cellular marketers are doing is that 5G has nothing to do with any specific frequency range. 5G is a set of specifications to define how cell towers work, and the specification can be used with any spectrum. The 5G spectrum can work in the mid-range spectrum, in the band that the FCC just labeled as 6G, and in the higher millimeter wave spectrum.
I’m mystified that the FCC would suddenly label the spectrum between 7-16 GHz as 6G. There will be no 6G specification – anything we do in this spectrum will still either use the 4G LTE or 5G specifications. Wireless scientists around the world have started experimenting with what they are calling 6G using terabit spectrum that ranges between 100 GHz and 1 THz. These high frequencies sit right below light and have the capability of being harnessed to transmit huge amounts of data for short distances, such inside superfast computer chips. Scientists expect within the next decade to develop the new 6G specifications.
Scientists understood that the 5G specifications would cover all spectrum up to 100 GHz. But apparently, we’re going to now carve up spectrum into tiny slices and label each tiny slice as a new generation of G. I’ve always joked that we’re going to be to 10G before we know it – and it turns out that was no joke at all and extremely conservative.
Behind all of the confusion behind mislabeling things as 5G and 6G is the fact that we will eventually need new cellular spectrum. Cellular networks seem robust today, but the demand for mobile data keeps growing. There are already a lot of complaints that the new spectrum labeled as 5G is overcrowded. The FCC knows it takes many years after declaring a new cellular spectrum until it shows up in the market. This is the time to look at new spectrum bands to put into use a decade from now. This is not going to be easy because satellite companies will be screaming loudly that cellular companies are trying to steal their spectrum. They aren’t completely wrong about this, and I don’t envy the FCC the job of refereeing between the competing uses of spectrum. Just recently, the FCC made it easier for satellite providers to share in existing spectrum bands. But when the FCC labeled this spectrum as 6G, I think we already know it ultimately favors the cellular companies.