Vodafone and Wi-Fi vendors play tug of war over 6 GHz

Everyone's wanting a slice of this spectrum pie

Vodafone says tests of frequencies in the upper 6 GHz band for mobile phone calls were successful, and is pushing for it to be available for cellular networks. The problem? Wi-Fi vendors also want this spectrum for wireless broadband.

The telecoms biz reckons its engineers at a lab in Spain used a smartphone tuned to frequencies in the upper 6 GHz band of the spectrum to achieve download speeds of up to 5 Gbps - which it claims is roughly double what today's networks are capable of - and even 2 Gbps on average in various indoor locations.

According to Vodafone, the latter is important as it reckons about 75 percent of all mobile traffic originates from users who are at home, in an office, or in other enclosed public places such as cafes or shops, which means users should expect to see a real speed benefit.

Tests used the same 6 GHz spectrum that Vodafone anticipates will be made available in European countries, and these demonstrate the tech has potential to achieve comparable coverage levels to 5G networks.

This, Voda contends, highlights that the upper 6 GHz band can be readily deployed on existing mobile sites cost effectively and efficiently, and will be able to boost capacity when current bandwidth becomes exhausted.

If you sense a drum being beaten here, you're probably not wrong.

Vodafone and other mobile network operators are calling for the upper 6 GHz spectrum band to be allocated to International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT).

This, it says, will promote the harmonization of 5G services across different geographical regions and balance out the allocation of the lower portion of the band that has already gone to Wi-Fi in many territories.

The telecoms giant will be presenting its findings ahead of a meeting of national regulators and industry members next month at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) in Dubai, which is set to decide on how to use this part of the spectrum.

In a statement, Vodafone chief network officer Alberto Ripepi said: "Without a fair and balanced allocation of 6 GHz spectrum, mobile users worldwide could face a major capacity crunch within just five years."

He claimed that demand for bandwidth is growing by 30 percent every year as devices including vehicles and various sensors forming the Internet of Things (IoT) are connected to cellular networks.

In the UK, telecoms regulator Ofcom kicked off a consultation in summer over proposals to allow both mobile networks and Wi-Fi vendors to have access to frequencies in the upper 6 GHz band, those in the 6,425-7,125 MHz range.

The agency had previously decided in 2020 to make the lower 6 GHz band (5,925-6,425 MHz) available for license-exempt use for Wi-Fi and similar technologies.

In a published summary of the responses it received, Ofcom revealed that these landed exactly as you would expect. Large tech companies such as Apple, Amazon, Meta, HPE, Cisco, and Broadcom argued for Wi-Fi use of the upper 6 GHz band, while those arguing for cellular use included BT/EE, Three, Virgin Media O2, Vodafone, Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, and mobile network trade org the GSMA.

Some respondents, however, called for a hybrid sharing arrangement. These included Qualcomm, TalkTalk, Samsung, and TechUK.

Almost all the arguments against hybrid sharing tended to fall into two categories, Ofcom noted. These were either concerns about feasibility, or that sharing is not needed because the need for mobile spectrum is much greater than the need for Wi-Fi spectrum, or vice versa.

Vodafone, for example, said that sharing would only be possible "if significant restrictions were imposed on mobile base station power levels, sacrificing the performance benefits for customers."

Ofcom said in its update "it is unlikely that mobile and Wi-Fi could effectively coexist" in the same spectrum without some form of enabling mechanisms. It said that it will be hosting discussions and workshops this year and during 2024, while contributing to the work on hybrid sharing mechanisms in Europe, and expects to hold a further consultation in 2024 once WRC-23 is finished.

However, at MWC Shanghai in June, the Chinese government announced that it had identified the upper 6 GHz band for mobile communications in the country's table of frequency allocations, with this taking effect from July 1.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed applications such as Wi-Fi back in 2020, meaning that global coordination on use of the magic frequencies seems somewhat unlikely.

Gartner senior research director and analyst Bill Ray told The Reg: "Vodafone, like all the major mobile operators, has spent billions on licensed radio spectrum, and every time a regulator gives away frequencies it devalues the bands that they have paid dearly for.

"The US has allocated the entire 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi use, releasing 1.2 GHz of radio spectrum for Wi-Fi (6E & 7) and creating a huge amount of value for ordinary Wi-Fi users – from large enterprises to home users trying to stream some TV."

Ray noted the "6 GHz channel offers enormous opportunities for extending Wi-Fi, deploying private cellular networks, and (perhaps even) extending Bluetooth," adding that "the regulator will have to decide if those things are more important than protecting the value of assets owned by large mobile network operators." ®

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