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Ofcom to free up additional spectrum for wireless services

Regulator takes steps to boost home network users who are now in their home offices and will be there for a considerable period of time

With millions of UK workers being based at home soon to become the established norm, telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced steps that it says could enable Wi-Fi users to gain faster and more reliable online experiences.

Ofcom says that although home broadband speeds have generally held up well during the Covid-19 lockdown despite higher demand due to increased working and learning from home, its changes will help meet the growing demand for wireless services now and in the future.

Before lockdown, a typical household would use up to 315GB of broadband data a month – the equivalent of watching up to four hours of HD video a day.

And as remote working continues, further lengthening the amount of time millions of people will be reliant on home networks, research has shown that users are finding their existing home Wi-Fi network, and the wider broadband infrastructure, incapable of supporting the rise in upload traffic, such as through video conferencing.

In its April 2020 report Taking stock of Covid-19: The short- and long-term ramifications on technology and end markets, ABI Research said that the claim that existing Wi-Fi infrastructure was inadequate to support remote working long term made the assumption that many users were still likely to be using outdated Wi-Fi equipment with legacy standards, such as 802.11n, rather than the latest Wi-Fi 6, which has been designed to deal with better provision in more crowded networks.

Now, following a consultation in January 2020, Ofcom is making airwaves in the lower 6GHz band available for Wi-Fi services without the need for a licence. Specifically, it is making the 5925-6425MHz range available for Wi-Fi and other radio local area network (RLAN) technologies.

Ofcom said that opening this band will make more channels available, increase capacity and reduce congestion in existing bands caused by large numbers of devices. The release of this spectrum is also designed to enable very low power (VLP) outdoor use. The regulator said it hopes this will enable the development of new, “innovative” applications.

Noting that expanding the spectrum will create some major benefits both within the home as well as outside environments, cloud-driven networking company Extreme Networks said that it wholly embraced Ofcom's decision to open up 500MHz of new spectrum for Wi-Fi in the 6GHz band, as the wider and the faster the traffic lanes become, the more opportunities for new use cases, new applications,  and enhanced video technologies are enabled. “As we have seen with all new technology advancements, there are always new ways to take advantage of these enhancements to fill the available capacity. And, this type of innovation is ultimately what will help us navigate the new normal we’re stepping into,” said director of product marketing Perry Correll.

“With the additional 500MHz of bandwidth we not only get 24 more 20MHz channels, we also get more channels at 40MHZ, 80MHz and even 160MHzhiogher bandwidth applications, such as AR/VR. The numbers associated with the additional capacity are impressive in themselves, but truth be told it is actually far better than the raw bandwidth numbers…Overall, the ‘cleaner’ spectrum in the 6GHz band will initiate a transformative leap in technology, as more and more companies and technologies take advantage of this new greenfield opportunity.”

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Another key plank in Ofcom’s plan is to remove the dynamic frequency selection (DFS) requirements from channels used by Wi-Fi in the 5.8GHz band (5725-5850MHz). DFS requires a router to scan for radars and to switch channel if suspected radar transmissions are detected. DFS can therefore represent a constraint for equipment manufacturers regarding quality of service and throughput, as well as being the cause of connection delays for users.

“We are amending the requirements on this band on the basis that the risk of undue interference from indoor Wi-Fi use is extremely low,” said Ofcom, adding that the removal of DFS will increase its use for indoor wireless applications and help reduce congestion in other bands.

As well as freeing up spectrum, Ofcom is also updating technical requirements for Wi-Fi routers to ease congestion in wireless networks – aiming to create a better experience for users. This is also intended to help people benefit from technology such as ultra-high-definition streaming, virtual reality and augmented reality.

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