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Spectrum: Unlicensed Bands in Focus at US Senate Hearing on 5G

The telecom world may be revolving around 5G these days but the future of unlicensed technology also hangs in the balance. On July 25 the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened to discuss spectrum and ‘The Race to 5G’. Charter Communications SVP of Wireless Technology Craig Cowden testified on the importance of allocating more unlicensed bands to Wi-Fi use.

The purpose of the hearing was for lawmakers to understand what spectrum allocations are required for the US to ‘maintain leadership in 5G’. Unlicensed bands were discussed in detail through the testimony of Craig Cowden, Senior Vice President of Wireless Technology at Charter Communications and not least through poignant and important questions from Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

Chairman: Critical role of unlicensed spectrum
The importance of unlicensed spectrum is also not lost on chairman of the committee, Senator John Thune (R): “While we pursue licensed spectrum for 5G, we must also be mindful of the critical role unlicensed spectrum plays throughout the communications landscape. Wi-Fi operating on unlicensed spectrum is responsible for a tremendous and growing amount of the data transmitted in our homes and offices, and is expected to play an increasing role in the hand-off of traffic originating or terminating on licensed spectrum, as well as in the Internet of Things,” Senator Thume said.

He also said that he recently wrote to the FCC noting that the 6 gigahertz band had particular promise for unlicensed use, noting that much more unlicensed spectrum would be needed soon. Wi-Fi NOW recently reported that the FCC expects to issue a NPRM on the 6 GHz some time this fall.

Charter: Serving 280 million wireless devices
Craig Cowden expanded on the role of Wi-Fi for Charter and in general: “Our WiFi network currently serves more than 280 million wireless devices. Many of those wireless devices are smart phones provided by cellular companies yet 80% of the data used on those phones goes through our WiFi network,” Cowden said in his opening statement.

Cowden also said that this week Charter will become the first US Wi-Fi service provider to introduce 802.11ax-based routers, and that he views the new standard as a ‘game changer.’ Cowden explained that Charter’s wireless strategy is ‘inside-out’ meaning that Charter services start in the home and office and then move towards providing (mobile) connectivity for people on the go. Cowden went on to call out spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band as ‘unused for more than 20 years’ and ‘the gateway to revolutionised Wi-Fi speeds and innovation’.

802.11ad & ay critical for ‘5G-like services’
In response to a question from Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas on what role unlicensed spectrum will play in the deployment of 5G, Cowden said that Wi-Fi will be critical for the future growth of 5G-like services. “They will just be on unlicensed spectrum instead of licensed spectrum,” Cowden said, referencing the IEEE’s 802.11ad and 802.11ay standards.

Approaching saturation of current Wi-Fi bands
He also said that the concern with Wi-Fi today is that we’re approaching ‘exhaust’ of existing Wi-Fi spectrum resources in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. “That’s one of the reasons we’re advocating for additional spectrum adjacent to the upper 5 GHz band meaning the 5.9 GHz band. And we’re also interested in exploring the 6 GHz band for long term increased unlicensed capacity, keeping in mind that we have to manage any potential interference and reallocation issues in that band,” Cowden said.

The following exchange perhaps more than anything illuminates how serious this Committee is on expanding unlicensed spectrum allocation:

Senator Brian Schatz: “So the Wi-Fi Alliance is saying that we need about 1 GHz of new unlicensed spectrum by 2025. I guess what you’re saying is that if we open up the 5.9 GHz band and do a couple of other things we can meet the demand – if we don’t, we won’t?”

Cowden: “That’s exactly correct, Senator.” – WIFI Now

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