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FCC Likely to Allow Uncontrolled Wi-Fi Devices in 6 GHz Microwave Band

The FCC just released a DRAFT Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (R&O and FNPRM) in the pending rulemaking to open the 5925-7125 MHz (6 GHz) microwave band for use by unlicensed devices (ET Docket No. 18-295). The draft decision adopts many of the arguments put forward by the big technology companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Qualcomm, etc.) projecting consumer demand for a billion or more unlicensed radio local access networks (RLANs) as well as other devices in the 6 GHz band, which is used in broadband point-to-point communications links licensed to public safety agencies, state and local governments, utilities, communications carriers, and others. The FCC will vote on these rules at its Open Meeting on April 23, 2020. The FCC will likely authorize two categories of unlicensed devices: standard power operations and low-power indoor operations. A third category, very lower power operation, will be the subject of additional rulemaking.

Standard-power devices may operate indoors or outdoors but only on frequencies and at locations determined by an Automatic Frequency Control (AFC) system intended to protect licensed radio systems. Each standard power device will remotely access the AFC to obtain a list of available frequency ranges in which it may operate and the maximum permissible power in each frequency range. The AFC will base its decisions on FCC licensing data. Each device will report its location and height above ground to the AFC, which will provide each device, on a daily basis, with a list of frequencies and powers at which it may operate.

The FCC plans to open the entire 6 GHz band for unlicensed indoor operation without the need for AFC control. The FCC believes that the low power of these devices and the fact that they must remain indoors will reduce the potential for interference to licensed radio systems to “insignificant” levels. To help ensure these devices are not used outdoors the FCC will require that they not be weather-resistant, they may not operate on battery power, and they must be marked “for indoor use only.”
FCC notes in its draft Order that unlicensed radio devices operating under Part 15 of its rules are not permitted to cause harmful interference but the Order offers no suggestions on how interference cases can be investigated or resolved.

The FCC will invite further comment on whether to permit “very low power devices” both indoor and outdoor operation without control by an AFC. The FCC will also invite comment on whether low power indoor devices should be allowed to operate at a higher power than allowed in this initial Order.

In other situations in which the FCC allowed for unlicensed devices to operate in licensed spectrum there was at least some potential for enforcing the rules against devices that were found to cause actual interference. The magnitude of deployments authorized by this order will subject licensed radio systems to random and unpredictable interference, which the FCC hopes will be “insignificant,” but for which it has suggested no means of controlling or halting.

Interested parties will have a brief opportunity to recommend changes to the draft Order before it is adopted on April 23. Please let us know if you have questions about these rules or would like to submit any last-minute views on the draft Order.

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