The wireless revolution has arrived, so much so that many forms of popular technology are now referred to by their “generation” – Wi-Fi 6E, 802.11ax, the next generation Internet of Things, and so on. Work has begun to develop standards for 6G, the sixth generation of wireless communication technology. A mature marketplace continues to pressure regulators to “find” new sources of wireless spectrum. Control is at a changing point.
Regulators around the world – usually led by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – have responded. Gone are the days of spectrum bands, specifically set aside for a single service, equipped with a smooth “guard band” (a piece of unused spectrum) to provide maximum protection to users of each group. There is a growing expectation that more and more wireless users will have to share the same band, while guard bands are no longer the norm, increasingly open for use by unlicensed devices.
The pressure to share
In the United States, Congress often influences wireless sharing. Sometimes it directs the FCC to take specific steps regarding the use of wireless spectrum, such as auctioning spectrum or providing spectrum for certain uses, such as without a license. In general, there are more specific directions for spectrum retrieval, often directed to military and other government users who are asked to change frequencies or share spectrum with new commercial users. At other times, Congress simply delegates authority to commissions, leaving much discretion to the agency to determine how this authority can be used to manage spectrum resources. In this example, the leadership of the organization will determine the agenda and policy.
Independently, due to the growing demand, regulators are pressuring users to share wireless frequencies and become more willing to do it more efficiently. More often than not, the FCC decides to change its rules to allow new entrants to correct the expected spectral environments for candidates. Recent examples include the FCC’s decision to open the 6 GHz band for unlicensed (WLAN) users and the C band for mobile users.
As the FCC moves faster to allow sharing in any one band with an increasing number of different user groups, front-end design becomes more difficult. Focusing on new legislation and FCC activities can provide some guidance on how policy changes can take place over several years. These observations are becoming more important, as the current commission has a growing expectation that stakeholders (including device designers and manufacturers) expect new uses for their frequencies and adjacent and nearby bands.
The FCC’s new Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on receiver usage is a recent indication that the company expects the industry to be focused and smart. NOI asks stakeholders to input various steps to promote more efficient receiver designs – examples include industry incentives, new FCC policy statements or guidelines, regulatory requirements and / or procurement practices. The idea is that the new policy could help manage spectrum, in part by resolving the perceived problem of “low-quality receivers” that could prevent new services from being launched on the same or near frequency.
Where’s the next one?
The industry response will drive the Commission’s decision on regulatory action regarding the receiver. Meanwhile, industry and regulators are constantly studying and discussing new forms of spectrum sharing. The advantage is that allocating devices for indoor or outdoor use to maximize spectrum usage requires a variety of technologies and software to ensure that the devices only work in their proper location. Over time, the use of artificial intelligence will help and then ultimately drive spectrum management. A current focus is on making wireless networks more efficient using AI-powered software. In the end, the smartest of the smart devices will self-determine which frequency can be used at any given time. Until then, the industry has to make its own decisions and design accordingly.