Q&A: A Big Year For Wireless Spectrum

Q&A: A Big Year For Wireless Spectrum

The continued growth of wireless connectivity and IoT, spurred on by post-pandemic digital habits, has resulted in a renewed need for more wireless spectrum and new rules surrounding its management.

NCTA spectrum expert, Vice President & Associate General Counsel Becky Tangren, shares a glimpse into what the coming year holds for the future of the airwaves. To learn even more about wireless spectrum, visit the NCTA website.

1. What wireless issues will be front and center in 2023?

Mobile wireless has evolved from simple phone calls into things like Wi-Fi, augmented and virtual reality, smart cities, industrial and agricultural uses, and more. The airwaves are growing more congested.

  • Policymakers must find a way to make room for all these exciting wireless services, at the same time protecting incumbent users. 

3.1 GHz for commercial use. The current debate surrounding how to commercialize 3.1 GHz, currently used by the Department of Defense, encompasses many issues at the heart of U.S. spectrum policy, including how to balance the needs of both government and commercial users.

  • With so many vying for space on our airwaves, it raises the question of the benefits of shared spectrum and whether the U.S. can afford to continue its policy of exclusively licensing large swaths to only a few wireless carriers.

Spectrum auction. Congress will weigh these issues and more as it considers extending the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum, which expired March 9, 2023.

  • These issues will likely also be examined by NTIA (the agency that oversees Federal spectrum) as it develops its National Spectrum Strategy.
  • You can expect policymakers to consider the benefits of various spectrum access mechanisms, including shared-licensed, unlicensed, and exclusive-licensed, how to ensure both commercial and government users have adequate spectrum, and how to make certain the U.S. remains competitive and innovative.

2. Why does wireless matter to the cable industry?

While wireless and cable may not be closely linked in the minds of many consumers, the cable industry relies extensively on wireless spectrum to expand and supplement the reach and performance of our broadband networks, and to provide competitive mobile services.

Cable Wi-Fi networks rely on unlicensed spectrum.

  • Cable Wi-Fi connects hundreds of millions of devices and carries the vast majority of consumers’ ever-increasing broadband traffic, be it business or residential.
  • Cable’s Wi-Fi networks are among the largest in the country.

Cable operators also rely on spectrum to provide mobile services as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs).

  • Cable MVNOs, including Xfinity Mobile, Spectrum Mobile, and Cox Mobile, collectively are the nation’s fourth largest and fastest-growing mobile service provider, providing consumers with another competitive choice in the wireless marketplace.
  • Cable MVNOs rely on Wi-Fi hotspots and licensed spectrum to provide these services and cable operators were some of those most active participants in the CBRS auction of shared licenses.

Cable’s Wi-Fi and other core services also support IoT devices and services.

  • In addition to connecting smart home devices, cable also offers low-power wide-area technologies that support a variety of use cases, including asset tracking, smart cities, and healthcare.

3.  How can U.S. policymakers ensure that consumers can take advantage of the latest Wi-Fi standard, Wi-Fi 7?

Wi-Fi 7 will allow customers to take advantage of faster internet speeds and enable more devices to connect to the network.

  • As video streaming and other demands continue to rise, so too does the need for better bandwidth, especially for live-streamed events, which require strong, reliable Wi-Fi performance.
  • Wi-Fi 7 has evolved to keep pace with these demands with its 320 megahertz channel bandwidths, and its ability to address latency issues, forever changing gaming and streaming experiences.
  • Policymakers can ensure that consumers can take advantage of this by guaranteeing that there is sufficient unlicensed spectrum and that unlicensed can operate at power levels that can utilize the latest standards.

In the coming year, we’ll see more consumer devices including smartphones and routers adopt the new Wi-Fi 7 standard at a record pace to take advantage of these performance advantages. 

4.  The roll-out of 10G on cable networks will provide multi-gig internet speeds and uncompromised network reliability. How do wireless technologies, such as 5G and Wi-Fi, complement this technology?

The 10G platform is a combination of technologies that will allow for multigigabit symmetrical speeds over cable’s broadband networks and is already offered in several markets.  5G and Wi-Fi are used by devices to access the cable network, which includes the 10G platform.

5G and 10G work together, but more spectrum will be needed. For consumers and businesses to take advantage of features like multi-gigabit speeds, low latency, and high security, they need both a fast and reliable broadband network and enough spectrum to support these technologies.

  • Congress and expert agencies, like the FCC and NTIA, must continue to make more commercial spectrum available for Wi-Fi and 5G.

5.  What is CBRS and how does it fit into the future of 3.1 GHz?

One solution for more spectrum (a finite resource) involves better sharing of bands already in use by allowing multiple users to share spectrum without harmful interference.

  • The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is an innovative way to access valuable mid-band spectrum based on a hierarchy that allowed Federal spectrum users, primarily the U.S. Navy, to remain in the band while simultaneously allowing new commercial users.
  • The FCC adopted a “shared-licensed” model and auctioned spectrum using much smaller license sizes than in the past.

CBRS is used for manufacturing, automotive, agriculture, energy, retail, commercial real estate, communications, media, and supply chain industries, as well as schools, libraries, and civil society groups, and also by traditional cellular networks, including Verizon.

Policymakers are currently considering how to allow commercial use in the 3.1 GHz band (now occupied by the DoD).

  • CBRS framework shows it’s possible to share spectrum among different users while simultaneously promoting innovation and allowing new commercial users the ability to access spectrum that was previously cost-prohibitive under auctions of large, high-power licenses.
  • This shared-licensed framework offers the ability to unlock more spectrum in bands like the 3.1 GHz band, providing new, innovative services for consumers while protecting the DoD’s critical missions.