There is a global change underway in the regulation of the radio frequency spectrum, a vital resource for wireless communication. Regulators set aside critical frequencies for shared use instead of allocating or auctioning them off for the exclusive use of any player. Part of this change is because the higher frequencies support massive data speeds at close range and less interference further afield. The downgrading of the 6 GHz and V bands for new generations of Wi-Fi is part of this trend. With limited Wi-Fi access and vastly underutilized 6 GHz and V bands, India has good reason to cut these bands, as its peers have done.
The 6 GHz band includes the frequencies from 5.925 to 7.125 GHz and the V band from 57 to 71 GHz. The bands support newer Wi-Fi versions, Wi-Fi 6E and WiGig respectively, which offer much higher data speeds and shorter range than previous versions of Wi-Fi. The latter operates in band 2. , 4 GHz and 5 GHz with specific frequencies criminalized in most countries, including India. Licensed frequencies are free to use, within prescribed standards, by anyone, without charge or permissions. Regulators do the same for the 6 GHz and V bands to support new generations of Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi 6E will be essential to avoid data congestion due to the massive increase in user devices around the world. Likewise, with the rollout of 5G, users will need Wi-Fi 6E in their premises to take advantage of its features, such as enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-low latency, and extended support for Wi-Fi. IoT. Immersive technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality, which are currently transforming industries like learning, entertainment, healthcare, etc., need Wi-Fi 6E. Studies show that the technology can coexist with existing users.
WiGig, in V-band, offers ‘wireless fiber’, that is, data speeds similar to those of optical fiber, without the expense and time required to install it. Its features include support for fixed wireless and enhanced broadband. Fortunately, since atmospheric oxygen absorbs V-band frequencies, signals cannot travel far enough to cause interference!
Countries like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have removed the two bands. Almost 80 countries, including Australia, Japan and the 27 members of the EU, have unlicensed the V band. The downgrading of the 6 GHz band continues. A decision is pending in several countries while the EU has indicted the lower part (5.925-6.425 GHz). An August 2021 report from the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance – which counts global tech majors among its members – suggests that countries that have phased out the 6 GHz band account for more than half of global GDP.
Companies like Qualcomm, Samsung and Cisco are developing technologies to exploit unlicensed spectrum. Network players like Broadcom, Linksys and Netgear have demonstrated devices, of which around 300 million will be deployed in 2021.
India has high stakes in Wi-Fi connectivity. Users rely on Wi-Fi hotspots in airports, homes and elsewhere. Mobile operators use it to offload traffic from 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Rural users of BharatNet, the national fiber optic network, need good Wi-Fi to exploit its capacity.
However, India has too few Wi-Fi hotspots. TRAI recommended important corrective measures. The government PM-WANI initiative aims to help local rural entrepreneurs expand Wi-Fi access. The 2018 National Digital Communication Policy targeted 5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots in India by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. Unfortunately, there are only 400,000 today.
India needs a nuanced approach to strengthening Wi-Fi hotspots. Deployment of advanced Wi-Fi technology could add value to users, improve demand and make supply commercially attractive. However, newer generations of Wi-Fi versions require unlicensed 6 GHz and V bands.
The NDCP does not explicitly refer to spectrum delicacy, but contains critically important text. He speaks of “recognizing the mid-band spectrum, in particular the 3 GHz to 43 GHz range, as being at the heart of India’s strategy for next generation networks”. He also invokes âinternational good practicesâ in the context of the V-band, which has been criminalized in more than 80 countries.
There are some concerns about spectrum crime. There are concerns that failure to auction the spectrum would hurt government revenues, violate the rights of existing licensed operators or Supreme Court rulings. I contend that the concerns are misplaced.
For starters, the auction experience makes it a dubious way to find out the price of spectrum in the market. There has been little competition for spectrum since 2016, when seven private players came out, leaving just three candidates for spectrum. Since then, of all the frequencies auctioned, barely half have been sold, and that too at a reserve price (minimum admissible offer) administratively decided by the government.
This could force higher bids by auctioning less spectrum, but it would leave even more spectrum idle! The government’s legitimate aim to prevent unearned gains from undervalued spectrum is causing serious distortions. It is better to face it by taxing windfall profits than by current untenable auctions.
The GSMA and the COAI, representing the mobile operators in the world and in India respectively, advocate the auctioning of the 6 GHz and V bands for the exclusive use of the winners. The argument runs counter to seriously skewed auctions and more and more countries are phasing out both bands.
TRAI recently opposed the granting of additional licenses. It indicates that the already decommissioned license (in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands) is underutilized. Unfortunately, it lacks that the currently unlicensed spectrum does not support critical applications such as AR / VR or âvirtual fiberâ that operate in the unlicensed 6 GHz and V bands.
Some argue that removing spectrum licenses violates the 2012 Supreme Court ruling in the infamous 2G case, forcing the government to auction spectrum in the future. But the court clarified its position in its response to a subsequent government referral. He said the auction of natural resources was not a constitutional principle but a matter of policy. Indeed, the government licensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band in 2015 and is still not auctioning backhaul spectrum.
The fact that the licensing spectrum could deprive the government of potentially significant auction revenue is misleading. A modeling study by Rekha Jain for the Broadband India Forum estimates the total economic value of unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum at Rs.180,284 crore ($ 25 billion).
Global regulators recognize the vast untapped potential of unlicensed spectrum for existing and new players, entrepreneurs, start-ups and even end users. Can India afford to ignore it?