As we enter 2023, the continual growth of internet traffic has only made a stronger case for making the upper 6 GHz band accessible for unlicenced access. Giants of the industry such as Apple and Meta are embracing Wi-Fi 6E in technologies that have become increasingly available to the general public, and adequate capacity within the 6 GHz spectrum band is required for further innovation.

Furthermore, a wide range of stakeholders now support licence-exempt use of the entire 6 GHz band. Organizations across Europe and beyond involved in e-health, education, XR-VR, digital SMEs and fibre have grown increasingly convinced of the value of Wi-Fi and its associated technology. Its role in helping the EU reach the ambitious targets set in the Digital Decade Programme has never been more clear.

The case for licenced-exempt access

The DSA strongly believes that Wi-Fi technologies provide the perfect gateway to bridging the digital divide. In Germany, Wi-Fi networks carried 32 times as much traffic per MHz of spectrum as IMT networks in 2021, delivering around 167 GB per Hz of spectrum allocated in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands compared to the 5.2 GB per Hz provided by mobile networks. Yet still there remains some debate as to whether the space devoted to Wi-Fi, as well as satellite and terrestrial services, would instead best be given to IMT networks.

To this end, LS Telcom and VVA – on behalf of the DSA – carried out extensive research into the benefits of IMT networks when compared to RLAN in the upper 6 GHz band across Europe. The results were enlightening.

A comprehensive study

Initially presented at the 17th European Spectrum Management conference, the report examined the technical and economic benefits of IMT and RLAN technologies operating within the 6425 – 7125 MHz spectrum band. It considered three scenarios to compare and determine which approach delivers the greatest possible value to countries operating within the European Union.

It concluded that the upper 6 GHz band can offer both technical and economic benefits across both IMT and RLAN technologies. But when considering these in the context of expected additional investment for deployments, the case for IMT use in the upper 6 GHz band is weaker compared to the commercial and societal benefits brought by wireless technology. The study highlighted that mobile networks can provide extra capacity in densely populated urban areas and support higher rate applications over 5G networks. However, it would be difficult for incumbent services to co-exist with IMT WAN in the upper 6 GHz band, partially due to the likely interference that would affect the ‘Fixed Service’ and ‘Fixed Satellite Service’ already in place across the EU.

Further research is being conducted in preparation for this year’s World Radio Communication conference (WRC), which will ultimately determine whether co-existence is possible. But, even if it is, the significant extra set up costs required to implement mobile networks within the band mean RLAN and Wi-Fi remains the most suitable and cost-effective option. There are currently over 1200 Wi-Fi devices certified for operation across the entire 6 GHz band. Should the upper 6 GHz band be allocated to IMT however, we would not likely see any end-user equipment until the end of the decade at least.

Vital first steps

Access to the full 6 GHz band should still remain the target, and the report indicated that Wi-Fi technologies with this access can support three to four times as many simultaneous users as the existing networks today.

Additional spectrum for RLAN would provide the necessary scope for quality and capacity improvements that would lead to greater benefits for a number of industries, including manufacturing, education, healthcare, and public services. This includes the potential implementation of service segmentation and prioritization, multi-layered operations, hyper-aware access points and context-aware wireless networks. Should regulators provide the entirety of the 6 GHz band for unlicenced access, it’s clear that there will be a huge improvement in the quality of service for internet access without the need for new dedicated spectrum.

As Europe continues to follow the path laid out by its Digital Decade program, consolidating the upper 6 GHz band for RLAN and Wi-Fi as opposed to IMT should be considered a good first step towards reaching its targets. But to truly support a digital economy and future technologies such as Wi-Fi 7, providing access to the full 1200 MHz within the 6 GHz band should be the top of the agenda for regulators and governments across the continent.

The full report – ‘Socio-economic benefits of IMT versus RLAN in the 6425-7125 MHz band in Europe’ – can be found on the DSA website.