“Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.”
— Luke Skywalker
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering the authorization of new unlicensed operations in the 6 GHz band. Like many recent spectrum proceedings, this one raises complex questions of how to accommodate new entrants while protecting important existing uses.
Unfortunately, some proponents of unlicensed use of the band have combined a maximalist approach to their demands with a reductive approach to any objections. They claim that the FCC must immediately grant access to the full 1,200 MHz in the band to meet soaring demand, and that any objections are simply NIMBY-ism that can safely be ignored.
There are quite a few things wrong with this position, so let’s walk through them one by one.
Unlicensed Justification #1: Incumbents Always Object to New Users, So Ignore Their Concerns Here. And Always.
A favorite tactic of unlicensed advocates is to try to preempt legitimate interference concerns by claiming that existing users always oppose new spectrum uses – so their concerns can always safely be dismissed. Those nasty incumbents just hate sharing!
Given that March was the longest year in recent memory, it’s understandable that memories may be a little short, but this just isn’t true. While we won’t speak for others, broadcasters have demonstrated that we are willing to work with new users who are willing to work with us. Broadcasters volunteered to share spectrum with the Department of Defense in the 2025-2110 MHz band, which helped facilitate the most successful auction in FCC history. And in February (which, again, feels like a long time ago, so I get it) the FCC voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding changes to the TV white spaces rules that reflects compromises between NAB and Microsoft. Painting broadcasters as knee jerk NIMBY-ists may be fun but it’s outdated, unfounded and lazy.
Unlicensed Justification #2: We Urgently Need the Maximum Amount of Spectrum for Wi-Fi Immediately. Or Else.
In the 2020 remix of the “spectrum crunch,” exploding, soaring, unchecked, unceasing and insatiable demand for more and faster wireless connections makes it imperative that the FCC immediately allocate fully 1,200 MHz of spectrum for unlicensed. The truth is that Wi-Fi usage in other bands is underwhelming, and other countries are moving forward with less than half that amount.
At some point unlicensed advocates are going to have to get accustomed to the idea that, when discussing over a thousand megahertz of spectrum, half a loaf is still a LOT of bread.
For perspective, a bunch of lawyers and engineers in Washington, D.C., just spent two and a half years trying to figure out how to make 280 MHz in the C-band available for licensed wireless operations. (And yes, this is yet another example of broadcasters facilitating sharing or ceding spectrum to the maximum extent possible while preserving their service.) In that proceeding, the technology upgrades necessary to enable these new uses are well-understood, the costs are being born by the users coming into the band and the benefits of the transfer are clear: revenue to the treasury and accelerated deployment of 5G. But now we somehow need more than four times that amount for Wi-Fi, with all of the costs being born by the incumbents, and no clear explanation why.
Unlicensed Justification #3: Technology Will Save the Day.
Unlicensed proponents like to claim that shiny technological innovations will save the day by preventing harmful interference. Except, the methods proposed to prevent interference in the 6 GHz band aren’t shiny or innovative and they won’t work in the real world.
For example, Wi-Fi proponents claim that Wi-Fi’s “listen before talk” protocol will prevent interference to licensed users. There are at least two problems with this argument. First, the same listen before talk technology has been a proven failure in the 2.4 GHz band, where Wi-Fi devices have frequently rendered unusable spectrum they’re supposed to “share” with broadcasters. Second, listening only helps if there’s something to listen to. In the case of broadcasters’ electronic newsgathering, interference can occur at passive receivers that are not transmitting – meaning Wi-Fi devices won’t pick them up.
As for other “new interference mitigation technology,” the FCC has proposed restricting Wi-Fi devices in the band to indoor-only operation by requiring devices to have an electric cord and a label. If you think an electric cord keeps a device inside, you haven’t been to a good tailgate recently. And if you think a label is a silver bullet, try driving on any highway in the country and see how many people obey posted speed limits.
Unlicensed Justification #4: You Just Need to Get Over It.
The most pernicious unlicensed argument is essentially that, sure, we may break some eggs, but it will only be a few and this omelet is going to be delicious. Under this view, while unlicensed use will “inevitably” cause interference to licensed users, it won’t happen too often, and the (highly, highly questionable) need for new spectrum is so urgent that it’s worth the harm.
There’s just one problem with that view. It’s illegal. Under the Commission’s longstanding framework for unlicensed operations, unlicensed users cannot interfere with licensed users. If they do cause harmful interference, they have to stop. Claiming that such interference will be rare is simply no answer – it can’t happen. Once you’ve conceded that interference is inevitable, that’s the ballgame.
Proceeding with the assumption that a little interference here and there is no big deal fundamentally contradicts longstanding Commission rules and precedent. A legally unsustainable order could be setting Wi-Fi proponents up for quite a disappointment if the demand is remotely as urgent as they claim. Maybe, in that case, half a loaf wouldn’t sound so bad after all.