These bands support new Wi-Fi versions, Wi-Fi 6E and WiGig, respectively, which offer much higher data speeds and shorter range than previous versions of Wi-Fi
There is a global shift happening in the regulation of radiofrequency spectrum, a vital resource for wireless communication. Regulators are setting aside critical frequencies for shared use instead of allocating or auctioning these for any player’s exclusive use. This shift is partly because higher frequencies support massive data speeds at short range and less interference farther away. The delicensing of the 6 GHz and V bands for new generations of Wi-Fi is a part of that trend. With scant Wi-Fi access and vastly underutilised 6 GHz and V bands, India has good reason to delicense these bands, as its peers have.
The 6 GHz band comprises frequencies from 5.925 to 7.125 GHz, and the V band from 57 to 71 GHz. The bands support new 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 works in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band with specific frequencies delicensed in most countries, including India. The delicensed frequencies are free to use, within prescribed norms, by anyone, without fees or permissions. Regulators are doing the same for 6 GHz and V bands to support new generations of Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi 6E will be vital for preventing data congestion due to the massive surge in user devices worldwide. Similarly, with the deployment of 5G, users will need Wi-Fi 6E in their premises to enjoy its features, like enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-low latency and extended support for the IoT. Immersive technologies like AR and VR, currently transforming sectors like learning, entertainment, health, etc, need Wi-Fi 6E. Studies show the technology can coexist with existing users.
WiGig, in V band, offers ‘wireless fibre’, i.e. optical fibre-like data speeds, without the expense and time involved in laying it. Its features include support for fixed wireless and enhanced broadband. Serendipitously, since atmospheric oxygen absorbs at V band frequencies, signals cannot travel far enough to cause interference!
Countries including the US, Canada, Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Mexico and Saudi Arabia have delicensed both bands. Almost 80 countries, including Australia, Japan and the 27 members of the EU, have delicensed the V band. The delicensing of the 6 GHz band is continuing. A decision is pending in several countries while the EU has delicensed the lower part (5.925-6.425 GHz). An August 2021 report from the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance—it counts global tech majors among its members—suggests countries that have delicensed the 6 GHz band account for over half the global GDP.
Companies like Qualcomm, Samsung and Cisco are building technologies to exploit unlicensed spectrum. Networking players like Broadcom, Linksys and Netgear have demonstrated devices, an estimated 300 million of which will be deployed in 2021.
India has high stakes in Wi-Fi connectivity. Users rely on Wi-Fi hotspots at airports, homes and elsewhere. Mobile operators use it to offload traffic from 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Rural users of BharatNet, the nationwide optic fibre network, need good Wi-Fi to exploit its capacity.
However, India has too few Wi-Fi hotspots. The TRAI has recommended extensive corrective measures. The government’s PM-WANI initiative seeks to assist local rural entrepreneurs in expanding Wi-Fi access. The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 targeted 5 million public Wi-Fi hotspots in India by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. Sadly, there are only 400,000 today.
India needs a nuanced approach to boost Wi-Fi hotspots. Deploying advanced Wi-Fi tech could add value for users, improve demand, and make provision commercially attractive. However, new generations of Wi-Fi versions need unlicensed 6 GHz and V bands.
The NDCP doesn’t refer explicitly to delicensing spectrum but contains critically relevant text. It speaks about “Recognising mid-band spectrum, particularly the 3 GHz to 43 GHz range, as central to India’s strategy for Next-Generation Networks”. It also invokes “international best practices” in the context of V band, delicensed in over 80 countries.
There are some concerns about delicensing spectrum. There is fear that not auctioning the spectrum would hurt government revenues, violate the rights of existing licensed operators, or the Supreme Court’s judgments. I argue the concerns are misplaced.
For a start, experience with auctions makes them a dubious way of discovering the market price of spectrum. There has been little competition for spectrum since 2016, when seven private players exited, leaving only three who bid for spectrum. Since then, of all spectrum put up for auction, barely half is sold, and that too at reserve price (minimum permissible bid) decided administratively by the government.
It could force higher bids by auctioning less spectrum, but it would leave even more spectrum idle! The government’s legitimate objective of preventing unearned gains from underpriced spectrum is causing severe distortions. It is better met by taxing windfall benefits than through current untenable auctions.
The GSMA and the COAI, representing mobile operators globally and in India, respectively, advocate auctioning 6 GHz and V bands for the exclusive use of winners. The argument flies in the face of seriously distorted auctions and progressively more countries delicensing the two bands.
The TRAI recently opposed delicensing more spectrum. It says the already delicensed (in 2.4 and 5 GHz bands) is underutilised. Unfortunately, it misses that the currently unlicensed spectrum does not support critical applications like AR/VR or ‘virtual fibre’ that work in unlicensed 6 GHz and V bands.
Some argue that delicensing of spectrum violates the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2012, in the infamous 2G case, requiring the government to auction spectrum in the future. But the Court clarified its position in its response to a subsequent government reference. It said the auction of natural resources was not a constitutional principle but a matter of policy. Indeed, the government delicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz in 2015 band and still does not auction backhaul spectrum.
That delicensing spectrum could deny the government potentially large revenues from auctions is misleading. A modelling study by Rekha Jain for the Broadband India Forum estimates the total economic value of the unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum at Rs 1,80,284 crore ($25 billion).
Global regulators recognise 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?