FCC opens 6 GHz band to unlicensed users

The Federal Communications Commission on April 23 approved a Report and Order that allows unlicensed use of the 6 gigahertz (GHz) microwave band for wireless communications and devices, a move that many industry groups have warned could endanger the operation of critical infrastructure and harm public safety.

Technology companies, the unlicensed users in the Order, have asked the FCC to open the 6 GHz bandwidth so they can offer consumers wireless communication capacity and speeds that would be an order of magnitude faster than the commonly used 4 GHz and even the recently unveiled 5 GHz bandwidths. They also say that 6 GHz could usher in a range of new devices and uses, such as in virtual reality and self-driving cars.

In a press release on the Order (ET Docket No. 18-295; GN Docket No. 17-183), the FCC said the 6 GHz band would provide wireless service “over two-and-a-half times faster than the current standard” and “increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by nearly a factor of five and help improve rural connectivity.”

Industries ranging from railroads, communications providers, electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities, to offshore oil and gas producers are registered to use the 6 GHz bandwidth to monitor their facilities, maintain services and for emergency communications.

Those industries, in filings with the FCC, have warned that widespread use of the 6 GHz band by unlicensed users could endanger their operations and threaten public safety.

The approved Order includes protections for licensed users of the 6 GHz band in the form of Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) and limits to the power levels devices can use when accessing an indoor 6 GHz network. AFC acts as a traffic cop to direct wireless traffic when interference occurs.

The licensed users argue that those safeguards are theoretical and do not accurately account for the amount of traffic, and potential interference, that could occur when the frequency is opened to unlicensed use.

On April 15, a broad group of stakeholders, representing both utilities and regulators, sent a letter to the FCC urging the regulator to “strengthen the language” of its order and direct its Office of Engineering and Technology to participate in “a more proactive manner than currently is suggested” in order to prevent “harmful interference to incumbent operations.”

While they “appreciate aspects of the Commission’s approach to opening this band to unlicensed use while seeking to protect incumbent licensees from interference” the stakeholders also expressed their concern in the letter that there has not been sufficient research and consideration of their needs and use of the 6 GHz bandwidth.

In the letter, the stakeholders say further study is required before low power devices can enter the band and AFC is necessary for both standard power outdoor and indoor devices in order to protect incumbent licensees from interference.

“Robust AFC is a key tool to protecting our networks,” the stakeholders said in the letter. They noted, however, that “the record developed by the unlicensed stakeholders in the proceeding does not support a conclusion that unlicensed operations can be introduced in the band – either indoors or outdoors – without causing harmful interference to incumbents, unless subject to a robust AFC.”

The stakeholders said that their submissions in the docket “have made clear that access to the 6 GHz band is vital not only for properly monitoring our facilities and maintaining service, but also for emergency communications.”

“Without an AFC system, the Commission would lack a mechanism to direct unlicensed devices to non-interfering channels and would have no way to shut down such devices that interfere with incumbent operations,” the stakeholders wrote. “Without this [AFC] backstop, the Commission would make critical, and often lifesaving, services vulnerable to harmful interference.”

The stakeholders went on to say, the FCC’s “action to permit unlicensed operations that would harmfully interfere with licensed uses is barred by Section 301 of the Communications Act, as implemented by the Commission’s Part 15 rules.”

“We therefore urge the Commission to chart a different course in the Final Order and require an AFC system to govern the indoor and outdoor operation of unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz Band at all power levels,” the letter said.

The stakeholder groups include the American Public Power Association, American Association of Railroads, the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the Competitive Carriers Association, the CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, the Edison Electric Institute, the Electric Power Supply Association, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Associations, and the Utilities Technology Council.