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Unlicensed 6GHz spectrum puts 5G economic potential at risk, warns GSMA

As countries diverge on their strategies for critical spectrum band, mobile trade association calls on governments around to license 6GHz to power 5G development rather than permit unfettered Wi-Fi6E expansion

5G development has to date faced a number of gating factors, device pricing and Covid-19 among them, but perhaps the most critical has been wireless spectrum. The mobile industry’s trade association, the GSMA, is now warning that the global future of 5G is at risk if governments fail to align on licensing 6GHz spectrum.

The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sectors. 

But the association said such companies’ stake in a prosperous 5G industry was in the balance, given that the full speed and capabilities of 5G depend on the 6GHz mid-band spectrum and, more particularly, because governments were already diverging in what they were planning to do in this range.

For example, China is setting out to use the entire 1,200MHz portion of the 6GHz band for 5G; Europe has split the band, with the upper part considered for 5G, but a new 500MHz tranche available for Wi-Fi; Africa and parts of the Middle East are taking a similar approach. What concerns the association greatly, however, is that the US and much of Latin America have declared that none of what it calls “valuable resource” will be made available for 5G, but rather will be offered to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies.

US consumer electronics trade and communications spectrum bodies, wireless broadband trade associations and portable device manufacturers were among others applauding US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for voting in April 2020 to make 1,200MHz of spectrum available for unlicensed Wi-Fi use in the 6GHz band.

US businesses had lobbied the FCC hard for such regulation, trying to persuade the commission that such a large unlicensed allocation with seven 160MHz channels would have a dramatic impact. The FCC’s decision was described as a milestone and a watershed moment for innovation that will no less than supercharge connectivity in every area, such as remote education, telemedicine, work and commerce, gaming and social media.

Yet the GSMA asserted that the 6GHz band was not only for mobile network operators to provide enhanced affordable connectivity for greater social inclusion, but also to deliver the data speeds and capacity needed for smart cities, transport and factories. The trade body citied research estimating that 5G networks need 2GHz of mid-band spectrum over the next decade to deliver on the technology’s full potential.

It called on governments to make at least 6,425-7,125MHz available for licensed 5G and ensure backhaul services are protected. It added that depending on countries’ needs, incumbent use and fibre footprint, the bottom half of the 6GHz range at 5,925-6,425MHz could be opened on a licence-exempt basis with technology-neutral rules.

“5G has the potential to boost the world’s GDP by $2.2tn,” remarked GSMA chief regulatory officer John Giusti. “But there is a clear threat to this growth if sufficient 6GHz spectrum is not made available for 5G. Clarity and certainty are essential to fostering the massive, long-term investments in this critical infrastructure.”

The call for spectrum by the GSMA comes ahead of the World Radiocommunication Conference in 2023, which will provide the opportunity to harmonise the 6GHz band across large parts of the planet and help develop the ecosystem.

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