The FCC voted today to allow unlicensed use of the 6GHz wifi spectrum, the goal of which is to help unclog the current 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, expand wifi through rural America, and help consumers take full advantage of the new WiFi 6 standard. While this is the largest addition to the mid-band wifi spectrum since the FCC first opened it up in 1989, it had originally opened the 6GHz band for non-wifi standard use in 2018.
“In making broad swaths of the 6GHz spectrum available for unlicensed use, the FCC envisions new innovative technologies and services that will deliver new devices and applications to American consumers and advance the Commission’s goal of making broadband connectivity available to all Americans,” the agency said in a press release announcing the decision.
For the average internet user, that means access to faster, more stable wifi. With more routers and motherboards now supporting Wi-Fi 6, it now makes more sense to invest in that hardware since the FCC has widened the mid-range band. There is a lot more wifi to go around, too. Operating on a dual-band spectrum for the last 20 years meant users only had access to 400MHz of spectrum, but opening up the 6GHz band adds 1,200MHz of spectrum, and channels on the 6GHz band should only take up 160MHz.
Even if you’ve already bought devices that support Wi-Fi 6, however, the hardware is still only operating up to the 5GHz band. Up until now, it was illegal for routers and other personal gadgets to use anything higher than 5GHz in the spectrum. So, unfortunately, you’ll have to replace those items with ones that are labeled “Wi-Fi 6E” (meaning they work on the 6GHz band) if you want to be an early adopter and take advantage of the faster speeds. The 6GHz band has the same theoretical top speed as 5GHz, 9.6Gbps, but without the same amount of people occupying the same airwaves, your internet speeds should get a nice boost. Wi-Fi 6E will be backwards compatible, but again, since older devices weren’t made to be compatible with the 6GHz band, there won’t be much benefit unless you actually upgrade your hardware.
Prior to today’s vote, the 6GHz band was used only by “microwave services” that support utilities, public safety, and wireless backhaul. The FCC’s decision is being met with skepticism from utility companies that use the same band to manage grids and pipelines. Brett Kilbourne, general counsel of the Utilities Technology Council, told Bloomberg that there’s already a wealth of devices that operate on 6GHz that necessary to maintain those networks, and any interference could cause blackouts, among other things.
“If we have to fix interference after it occurs, you can have all sorts of problems,” Kilbourne said.
But the FCC says it will make sure new wireless devices operating on the same band, like cell phones and internet routers, won’t interfere with those licensed devices by using what is calls an “automated frequency coordination system,” which allows different kinds of wireless devices to operate on the same frequency without crossing signals. Indoor internet routers aren’t much of a concern, but higher-powered outdoor devices have to be managed more closely.
Apple, Belkin International, Google, Intel, Wi-Fi Alliance, and many other tech companies and nonprofit organizations commended the FCC’s plan to open up the 6GHz band when it was first proposed earlier this month.