2020: A Remarkable Year for Wi-Fi
By Ian Fenger
World Wi-Fi Day is this Saturday, and if there was ever a year when we should celebrate Wi-Fi, it would be 2020.
Even prior to the current public health crisis, Wi-Fi was part of our routine and played a growing role not only at home and at the office, but in factories, hospitals, retail stores, and transportation hubs across the country. In fact, more than half of U.S. internet traffic transits a Wi-Fi network, and that share is predicted to grow. During the pandemic, Wi-Fi has become even more important as Americans around the country worked, learned, shopped for essentials, and accessed medical care from home. Broadband and telecommunications providers have observed an increase in Wi-Fi-connected devices, Wi-Fi data usage, and Wi-Fi calling minutes since late February.
So now, more than ever, American consumers require more of the critical input to make Wi-Fi run: unlicensed spectrum. Thankfully, the FCC delivered. April 2020 marked a watershed moment for Wi-Fi, when the FCC made the decision to open 1,200 megahertz in the 6 GHz band to shared unlicensed use — giving consumers and businesses the opportunity to experience next-generation, multi-gigabit Wi-Fi without congestion.
Before this decision, the FCC had not made available new unlicensed spectrum suitable for Wi-Fi since before the iPhone was introduced. Needless to say, broadband technology and the way people use the internet have dramatically changed since then, and the Wi-Fi upgrade was desperately needed. NCTA members have already begun to move forward with deploying next generation Wi-Fi equipment as providers roll out Wi-Fi 6 routers designed to accommodate next generation speeds in existing Wi-Fi bands. But this latest FCC achievement is a true gamechanger for consumers, as the wider Wi-Fi channels enabled by 6 GHz will allow for faster streaming and more users on the network while reducing congestion.
The next step that will help us prepare Wi-Fi for the future is to move forward with the FCC's proposal to designate spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for unlicensed use. While 6 GHz will be the home for exciting new Wi-Fi devices and unlicensed innovations, just the lower portion of the 5.9 GHz band, added to a widely used Wi-Fi band next door could enable a new 160 MHz Wi-Fi channel in some existing Wi-Fi devices with a software or firmware upgrade. And because Wi-Fi would not share the same spectrum as existing use — as unlicensed must do in the 6 GHz band — with the right technical rules, the FCC can enable a wider range of use cases in this small swath of bandwidth.
A new study released in April found that opening up the 5.9 GHz band would create tremendous economic benefits for the U.S., adding over $28 billion in economic value by 2025.
As we keep our eye on the next Wi-Fi band and the innovations it will enable, it is also worth looking back at the significant Wi-Fi developments in 2020 so far, which will shape the future of our Wi-Fi experience. This World Wi-Fi Day, let's reflect and celebrate how much Wi-Fi has transformed over the years to accommodate our ever-evolving digital lifestyles, and how it serves a wide array of our connectivity needs.