A quick look around any home in 2020 will reveal just how essential Wi-Fi has become to our daily lives.
It’s no longer just the obvious devices such as laptops, tablets and phones that we connect to the internet through Wi-Fi; increasingly, everything from refrigerators and thermostats to baby monitors and even the cars in our garages may be Wi-Fi connected.
This trend is only accelerating. In fact, some estimates suggest that by 2022, there will be more than 13 internet-enabled devices per person in the United States, many of which will connect through Wi-Fi — and thus are dependent upon “unlicensed spectrum” — the wireless communication bands that enables Wi-Fi operations.
For many communities, access to Wi-Fi is invaluable and represents a critical link to the internet. Schools and libraries, for example, offer students access to broadband so they can complete homework assignments online via Wi-Fi. Across rural and urban communities, Wi-Fi is helping to bridge the “homework gap” and connect more people than ever to the internet. And as the number of internet-enabled devices continues to increase across all communities, the importance of Wi-Fi, and in turn, unlicensed spectrum, will also increase.
The United States has generally taken a proactive approach in ensuring a sufficient amount of unlicensed spectrum is available for use. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees this country’s spectrum policy, has always been guided by a desire to establish a balance between the amount of spectrum it makes available for licensed use (i.e., for exclusive use by one company) and unlicensed use (i.e., for use by many companies, products, and individuals).
This foresight has contributed to positive economic outcomes for the country. In fact, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, in 2018 Wi-Fi, as a complement to products and services consumed in our country, generated an estimated $499 billion in economic value for the United States, with this amount predicted to increase to nearly $1 trillion by 2023.
But as the sheer number of Wi-Fi connected devices continues to explode, and with it the volume of data flowing wirelessly around us, we’re stretching the currently available unlicensed spectrum close to its capacity. Wireless spectrum is a finite resource, and as broadband deployment continues to expand and more and more household and personal devices become “smart” and connected, the need for faster, more resilient Wi-Fi networks will only grow.
Today, we simply do not have enough unlicensed spectrum available to meet the existing and future demands of Wi-Fi networks with next generation capabilities. For instance, the latest Wi-Fi standard — Wi-Fi 6 — will deliver gigabit speeds and help networks perform smarter and more efficiently. These speeds will support higher-bandwidth applications like augmented reality and virtual reality.
With the capacity of existing unlicensed spectrum at its limit, it is critical that the FCC move forward with opening up additional spectrum bands for unlicensed use. Recognizing this imminent “traffic jam,” the FCC is currently examining ideas for freeing up additional bands of the spectrum for unlicensed use — specifically, bandwidth in the 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz spectrum bands.
Opening up these bands for unlicensed operations would benefit all consumers, especially those in the more rural parts of our country. The 6 GHz band in particular — as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has acknowledged — offers tremendous potential for unlicensed use given the amount of spectrum in the band.
There is strong bipartisan consensus at the FCC that the 6 GHz band should be opened for unlicensed use, which would help relieve the growing congestion in current Wi-Fi bands and ensure the explosive growth of our hyper-connected digital future can continue.
Opening up the 6 GHz band could also contribute to significant economic benefits by allowing Wi-Fi to support the next-generation wireless devices and services in those locations where 5G simply will not be available.
The FCC should move ahead and open this band of spectrum, to help consumers in all communities reap the benefits of next-generation wireless services across all communities.