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Confidence in wi-fi grows amid simmering 6-GHz tensions

With WRC-23 in full swing, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has published a bullish survey about the current state of Wi-Fi and what's in store for the next 12 months.

Nick Wood

November 29, 2023

3 Min Read

Confidence in wi-fi has improved this year compared to last, claims the industry group, with 58% of respondents saying they are more confident about investing in the technology compared to 46% in 2022.

By the end of 2024, 41% of those surveyed plan to deploy the latest version of wi-fi (Wi-Fi 7), which is on top of the 7.5% who already have. By that time, 47% plan to have implemented either WBA OpenRoaming or Passpoint to a new or existing wi-fi network, enabling devices to automatically connect to trusted networks without the need for suers to manually enter their credentials.

In addition, nearly 70% of respondents are either involved with a city-wide public wi-fi deployment or plan to be in the next year or two.

"There are around 20 billion Wi-Fi devices in use today, and the economic value of Wi-Fi is an estimated $4 trillion," the WBA said. "Wi-Fi continues to enjoy significant industry momentum with the drive into the 6 GHz band being the most impressive current factor."

The study forms part of an industry update that WBA issues every year, but the release of this one is particularly timely given that the outcome of WRC-23 in Dubai could have significant consequences regarding use of the upper 6 GHz band.

As previously reported, today the spectrum is generally designated for flexible or licence-exempt use, which has encouraged the wi-fi industry to adopt it for Wi-Fi 6E and the new Wi-Fi 7 standard. However, the mobile industry is campaigning for it to be identified for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT), arguing that additional mid-band spectrum is needed to deliver on the full potential of 5G.

With both sides keen on the 6 GHz band, and with uncertainty over whether spectrum-sharing techniques will enable efficient shared use of it, each camp is working overtime to stake its claim on the frequencies.

The WBA report touches on the 6 GHz band, talking up the benefits offered by Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 when it comes to supporting both mission-critical enterprise use cases, and residential broadband.

"The improved performance means that Wi-Fi 6E can compete with 5G in the most advanced emerging use cases in ways that previous generations could not. These include industrial and enterprise VR and metaverse functions, various Industry 4.0 applications, and potential automotive ones," the WBA said.

It also documents the broad support from a number of countries for licence-exempt 6-GHz spectrum, and notes the progress that has been made when it comes to tackling the complexities of shared use.

It mostly refrains from directly addressing the mobile industry's lobbying effort, although it asserts that "notably, three separate studies from Analysys Mason, Ericsson, and the OECD, point to slowing growth in mobile traffic volumes – undermining the argument that the MNOs need more spectrum to support their networks."

Separately, a recent article by tech industry analyst Dean Bubley on behalf of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance – which appeared on LinkedIn – argues the case for using 6-GHz for indoor wi-fi.

"Industry estimates suggest that 60-80% of cellular data is delivered to indoor users, predominantly on smartphones. Additional statistics show that smartphones also typically consume another 2-5x the cellular data volume on Wi-Fi, almost all of which is indoors or in vehicles. In other words, 90%+ of total smartphone data is consumed inside buildings," he noted.

While Wi-Fi at 6 GHz can satisfy this demand, 5G cannot, he contends, due to the propagation challenges faced by outdoor macro networks, and the fact that current indoor systems don't support cellular at 6-GHz and would be costly to upgrade.

"A final fundamental element here is timing. 6-GHz Wi-Fi chipsets and user devices are already shipping in their 100s of millions. Access points are widely available today and becoming more sophisticated with Wi-Fi 7 and future 8+ versions," said Bubley. "By contrast, 5G/6G use of the band for indoor use is unlikely until well into the next decade, if at all."

With WRC-23 due to close in mid-December, there is still time for the tussle over 6-GHz to simmer away before it reaches boiling point.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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