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Battle for 6GHz heats up in America: Broadcasters sue FCC to kill effort to open spectrum for private Wi-Fi

Big Tech pushes back, says band use Hertz no one

The argument over opening up the 6GHz spectrum range, allowing it to be used for things like private indoor Wi-Fi, is heating up with TV broadcasters now suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

In a petition [PDF] to the Washington DC Court of Appeals, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has challenged the FCC's decision in April to open up the space to unlicensed operators in the United States, claiming the move “unlawfully fails to protect the myriad existing licensed users in the band from potential interference arising from such unlicensed use.”

As the use of wireless data has exploded, the pressure to make efficient use of limited spectrum has been intense and complicated. Among those affected and unhappy has been the US military, weather stations, and now, the TV industry.

Today, the 6GHz band is allocated for licensed use by broadcasters, public safety entities, wireless communications providers, and utilities. The FCC’s plan, heavily backed by the tech industry, is to allow for unlicensed use of the band, with low-power usage inside houses and high-power usage allowed outside if it uses a so-called automatic frequency coordinator, which aims to avoid clashing with other, licensed, use of the spectrum.

Wi-fi symbol made out of clouds. Photo by Shutterstock

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The idea is that low-power usage inside houses won’t have any impact on 6GHz transmissions outside the home, and it is this that tech giants are excited about as a way to provide next-generation wireless networking for people. And thanks to how Wi-Fi protocols work, those same giants are confident they can also use the 6GHz band without interfering with licensed providers.

Those providers, however, are significantly less confident, especially if the market is flooded by the likes of Google and Apple putting out products that use the spectrum.

“The [FCC] order is a final agency action that has significant and immediate adverse consequences for NAB and its members because broadcasters rely on interference-free spectrum in the 6GHz band for important operations, including those needed for the production of highly-valued news and sports programming,” the appeal stated. “NAB now seeks relief from the Order on the grounds that it: (1) is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion... (2) violates federal law… and (3) is otherwise contrary to law.”

And the beneficiaries...

The tech industry – including Apple, Google and Microsoft – argue that the claims about interference are "fundamentally unconvincing," and that the FCC’s approach will work. It has said the fear of a flood of new devices causing interference not foreseen by the regulator is “implausible.”

What’s more, they claim, not allowing the use of 6GHz would “significantly harm American consumers,” as well as companies that “have invested in 6GHz unlicensed technologies,” i.e. themselves.

Back in April, the FCC rejected a plan put forward by the current 6GHz users that would have auctioned off small bands of spectrum for exclusive use, with the commission's chairman Ajit Pai saying that the required reorganization of the band would be too complex, especially since many of the current users won’t want to move off their spectrum allocations. And so the FCC voted to open up the entire band, but asks that tech companies use the latest technology to minimize interference.

Having lost the fight to get the FCC to come up with a different technological solution, the broadcasters are now going legal and arguing that the FCC’s rulemaking is itself invalid: an approach that has been unusually successful in the past, particularly when it comes to the hot-button issue of net neutrality. ®

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