Recently, there has been growing demand from industry bodies and associations to delicense 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands in India. The Wi-Fi space has become a lot more exciting with the emergence of new Wi-Fi standards such as Wi-Fi 6E (the latest generation of Wi-Fi) and WiGig (that uses the V-band and offers advantages such as faster gigabit speeds). These standards require airwaves in 6 GHz and 60 GHz frequency bands to operate. As a consequence, governments and telecom regulators across the globe are deliberating on policy options for spectrum allocation in the aforementioned bands.
Stakeholders are divided on the issue of allocating 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands in India. For instance, there are certain telcos who strongly oppose delicensing these bands and demand a licensed framework with the use of auctions for allocation. As per their argument, delicensing the said bands will put their investments at risk and upset a level playing field. Whereas, on the other side, US tech majors Cisco and Intel, alongside industry bodies and forums such as the ITU-APT Foundation of India and Broadband India Forum, are in favor of delicensing. Notably, the delicensed/ unlicensed frequency bands are “free to use” by anyone, and the users need not pay any fees or obtain a license (right to use) from the government. On the contrary, licensed bands come with a “right to exclusive use” and are usually allocated through auction. They have associated costs including auction amount, license fees, usage charges, etc.
In this article, I argue that the government should consider delicensing the 6 GHz band and 60 GHz range in the V-band, simply known as the 60 GHz band, to meet the increasing data demand, provide a better connection experience, and, more importantly, unlock the economic value and potential of these bands.
Let us begin by understanding the fundamentals of Wi-Fi and its evolution over the years. Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard 802.11. To keep things simple, consider ‘Wi-Fi’ a user-friendly name for IEEE 802.11 standard. Since its advent in 1997, Wi-Fi has become an indispensable wireless technology alongside mobile technology. The term ‘Wi-Fi’ is used synonymously with the internet by many users as a result of its widespread use in providing an interface with the internet.
IEEE 802.11 standards have evolved over the years, from 802.11a to 802.11ax. Again, these terms don’t sound so user-friendly, and for this reason, Wi-Fi alliance, a non-profit organisation that owns Wi-Fi trademark, came up with simplified generational names such as Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, etc. The most recent Wi-Fi 6E [read Wi-Fi 6th generation- extended] is a simplified name for IEEE 802.11 ax standard. Needless to say, every new generation of Wi-Fi brings greater speed, lower latency, and a better user experience.
In addition to the pre-existing growth in demand for data, the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated data requirements due to the radical shift to work-from-home, online classes, etc. Dependence on Wi-Fi has increased in parallel to meet this increase in demand. On the other hand, India has only around 700 MHz of spectrum available for unlicensed use, concentrated majorly in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands which are currently used for Wi-Fi services in India. The 2.4 GHz band is already crowded, and the same is anticipated for the latter. In order to support the growing data demand, policymakers in India need to explore the option of opening up more unlicensed spectrum. Notably, the quantum of unlicensed spectrum in India is significantly lower than in other countries such as the USA, UK, China, Japan, and Brazil, all of which have approximately 15,000 MHz of unlicensed spectrum.
The policy reluctance of DoT to delicense more spectrum is partly because of fear of losing out on revenues which licensed spectrum generates, and partly because of a narrow interpretation of Supreme Court’s 2012 judgement. However, considering the recent developments in Wi-Fi, 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands appear to be ideal candidates for creating more unlicensed spectrum. Let us explore this further.
Unlike its previous versions, which operated in either the 2.4 GHz or the 5 GHz band, Wi-Fi 6E operates in the 6 GHz band. The 6 GHz band contains radio frequencies between 5.925 and 7.125 GHz, and is much wider than the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. The wide channels, along with other distinct features such as lesser interference, enable Wi-Fi 6E to perform with better speeds, even in multi-user connected, congested, and dense networks.
Furthermore, Wi-Fi 6E is a new and niche technology, whose market will undoubtedly develop in the coming years. Indian telecom hardware and software companies have the opportunity to capture a chunk of this market in India as well as globally. We know that service provision in unlicensed bands is less expensive, and thus attracts a lot of innovations. We need to open up the 6 GHz band very soon to foster innovations by indigenous companies. We took a late call on delicensing the 5 GHz band which affected the prospects of Indian innovators and companies. We can’t afford to repeat this.
Similarly, we have WiGig – another exciting Wi-Fi technology. WiGig uses the V-band’s 60 GHz range (i.e., airwaves between 57-71 GHz frequency) to operate. The V-band offers advantages such as faster gigabit speeds and lack of interference due to oxygen absorption within its frequency range, making this band ideal for shared unlicensed use. The government launched a public Wi-Fi initiative of India known as PM-WANI in December 2020. PM-WANI aims to promote broadband in the country through the deployment of public Wi-Fi access points. Supporting such a dense deployment of Wi-Fi access points would require a “fiber speed” backbone. However, cost structure and right-of-way hurdles may be prohibitive for the deployment of fiber backhaul in dense urban environments. WiGig offers a cost-efficient wireless backhaul solution as an alternative to fiber backhaul, with multigigabit speeds and reliability similar to fiber. Delicensing the 60 GHz band can thus especially benefit PM-WANI, because of its potential to provide alternative backhaul solutions.
It is important to remember that unlicensed bands for Wi-Fi access have significant economic value. Although unlicensed bands do not generate direct revenue for the government through auctions, spectrum usage charges, etc., the economic value of unlicensed Wi-Fi is huge. According to a report by Wi-Fi Alliance, the global economic value of Wi-Fi will reach Rs 362 lakh crore (USD 4.9 trillion) by 2025. A BIF (Broadband India Forum) report authored by Prof. Rekha Jain estimates the economic value of Wi-Fi in unlicensed spectrum bands (2.4 GHz, 5GHz, 6 GHz, and 60 GHz) for 2025 to be INR 12.7 lakh crore in India. A major concern raised by telcos recently is that the government might lose out on revenue if 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands are delicensed instead of licensing and sold through auction. However, this concern seems to be evidently misplaced due to the huge economic potential of these bands, as also pointed out by other experts.
Several other jurisdictions have already started delicensing these bands. Almost 35 countries, including the USA, UK, Brazil, UAE, and Korea have delicensed the 6 GHz band, and several others are considering the same. Similarly, around 70 countries across the globe have delicensed the V-band in the 60 GHz range.
Wi-Fi 6E and WiGig are exciting technologies with numerous benefits and will play a crucial role in improving the Wi-Fi scenario in India. Had the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands not been delicensed in the past, could we have even imagined a Wi-Fi revolution? The government must consider delicensing the 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands to bring in the next Wi-Fi revolution.
(The author is thankful to Arindrajit Basu and Isha Suri for their review and suggestions.)
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Abhishek Raj is a policy researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bengaluru-based technology policy think tank. He researches and writes on policy issues concerning telecom and internet access, among other topics.