Outdoor Access to Unlicensed Spectrum in the 5.9 GHz Band Will Support Next-Generation Wi-Fi

5.9 Ghz Update

Last fall, the FCC took a major step forward for Wi-Fi when it voted unanimously to open up the lower portion of the 5.9 GHz band for indoor unlicensed use. As Wi-Fi demand has grown, so has the need for wider channels and for more unlicensed spectrum bandwidth to support the ever-evolving digital needs of Americans. This compromise decision also preserved the upper portion of the band for new automotive safety innovations and updated the rules so the auto industry can deploy the latest technologies. 

Although this bipartisan decision is a win for both American consumers and automotive safety, some stakeholders are urging the new Administration, Congress, and the courts to undo it. But as noted in comments NCTA just filednow is the time to expand, not undo, the benefits that the FCC’s 2020 decision will bring.

The past year has demonstrated that Wi-Fi is the most important wireless technology in American households, businesses, and schools. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous connected devices--including laptops, tablets, smartphones, game consoles, and IoT devices-- had already become staples in many homes and businesses. These devices connect via Wi-Fi to the broadband networks that have allowed people to work remotely, distance learn, or connect virtually for health, entertainment, and social connection. Even before the pandemic, Wi-Fi was predicted to carry over 56% of U.S. internet traffic by 2022. And the annual economic contribution of unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi to the U.S. economy is significant--approximately $995 billion in 2021 alone and $1.58 trillion by 2025.

The increase in connected devices and Wi-Fi usage over time has led to more saturation in existing Wi-Fi bands, and the latest Wi-Fi technologies—designed to support high-bandwidth applications—require access to very wide channels. The FCC’s 2020 order opening the lower 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band for indoor use helps meet these connectivity needs. This mid-band spectrum can be combined with the widely used Wi-Fi band next door to create the wide channel needed for gigabit Wi-Fi. And critically, because of the location of the 5.9 GHz band next to one of the most widely used Wi-Fi bands in the world, providers can bring this new bandwidth online for American consumers in some existing devices with a simple software or firmware upgrade. The FCC concluded that this decision best met the needs of American consumers and, as the nation’s expert commercial spectrum regulator, had the authority to make this choice.

Although the 2020 Order was a great start in bringing more and better broadband to American consumers, the 5.9 GHz band won’t meet its full potential unless the FCC moves forward with its proposal to also enable outdoor use in the band. Not only is outdoor access required to serve stadiums, university campuses, retail venues, and the countless outdoor businesses that thrive on Wi-Fi, it’s critical for portable devices like smartphones. In today's world, consumers expect to be able to connect their devices wherever they are—indoors or out—and enabling portable use cases by authorizing outdoor access will help create a robust unlicensed device ecosystem in the 5.9 GHz band. 

It would be a mistake to roll back the FCC's unanimous, bipartisan decision on 5.9 GHz as millions of Americans are relying on Wi-Fi networks now more than ever before. And with even more technology innovation on the horizon and internet demands only increasing, the best path towards a brighter and more connected future includes one in which 5.9 GHz is accessible not only for indoor use, but also for flexible outdoor and mobile Wi-Fi operations.