The Case for Additional Unlicensed Spectrum

The Case for Additional Unlicensed Spectrum

Mark Walker
Vice President, Technology Policy

David Debrecht
Vice President, Wireless Technologies

Jacob Malone
Principal Strategist & Director, User Behavior & Economics

Mar 19, 2024

Key Points

  • Wi-Fi provides internet connectivity for the vast majority of devices and applications, in terms of both the number of connections and total data carried.  
  • To keep pace with performance increases of internet services and with the growing performance demands of critical devices and applications, U.S. and global governments must continue to allocate additional unlicensed spectrum toward the advancement of Wi-Fi performance. 

Today and for the foreseeable future, Wi-Fi is the technology most devices and applications use to connect to the internet. As technology advances, those devices and applications will require more data to deliver high-quality experiences for increasingly immersive, compute-intensive applications. To further support the emergence of high-fidelity video conferencing, cloud gaming, virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) and other immersive applications, widespread availability of 10 gigabit and 25 gigabit internet services is just over the horizon.

The real-time nature of these cutting-edge applications will require even faster and higher-performing Wi-Fi, with greater throughput, lower latency and better reliability. Also, because consumers primarily rely on Wi-Fi to connect to the internet — demonstrated by 10 times the amount of data going over Wi-Fi compared with mobile networks and the roughly 80 percent of data from mobile devices going over Wi-Fi — consumers now expect wall-to-wall Wi-Fi coverage in their homes, businesses and wherever they are (e.g., airports, coffee shops, civic centers). More unlicensed spectrum is key to ensuring that Wi-Fi performance keeps pace with consumer expectations and needs.

Identifying and allocating additional unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi is critical to ensuring the ready distribution of increasingly capable internet services throughout the home and enterprise. Such efforts will enable the increased performance of today’s and tomorrow’s critical applications in terms of coverage, throughput, latency and reliability, and will support new Wi-Fi features and functionality. In opening the 6 GHz band to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed use in 2020, the FCC took a necessary step toward enhancing the performance and capabilities of Wi-Fi and ensuring the future growth of broadband. However, opening 6 GHz isn’t a one-and-done solution. Additional unlicensed spectrum is needed to enable continued Wi-Fi performance enhancements to stay ahead of both the increasing performance of broadband networks and the growing performance requirements of devices and applications.


Since its inception, Wi-Fi has been designed to use spectrum efficiently and to co-exist with other spectrum users. Wi-Fi uses a contention-based protocol and seeks to transmit data opportunistically in short bursts, when the frequency channel is available, enabling coexistence with other users. Moreover, Wi-Fi devices use a half-duplex access protocol (transmitting and receiving on the same channel) to further economize on available frequency channels.

In 1997, IEEE released the first 802.11 standard, which is the basis for Wi-Fi. From that humble beginning, we’ve seen the adoption of Wi-Fi explode. Today, there are more than 21 billion Wi-Fi devices in use globally. Initially, Wi-Fi used the 2.4 GHz band and provided a data rate of up to 2 Mbps. Over time, Wi-Fi devices began using the 5 GHz band and larger channel sizes to drive increased data rates. With Wi-Fi 6E and the incorporation of channel sizes up to 160 MHz, Wi-Fi devices can support data rates over 1 Gbps.

With the opening of the 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz), the FCC enabled for the first time 320-MHz Wi-Fi channels. Doing so required the FCC to craft an innovative three-part sharing framework to enable coexistence with the incumbent licensees:

  • Low Power Indoor (LPI) requires the use of a contention-based protocol, permits only indoor access points (APs), restricts those APs to a power spectral density limit of 5 dBm/MHz and total power limit of 30 dBm EIRP on a 320-MHz channel, and is available across the entire 6 GHz band.
  • Standard Power, enabled by Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC), allows outdoor access points and higher power, up to 36 dBm EIRP (or 23 dBm/MHz on 20 MHz channel), when under the control of an AFC system, and is only available in the UNII-5 (5.925–6.425 GHz) and UNII-7 (6.525–6.875 GHz) portions of the band.
  • Very Low Power (VLP) requires the use of a contention-based protocol and enables indoor and outdoor operations at an even lower power limit of -5 dBm/MHz and is only available in the UNII-5 and UNII-7 portions of the band.

The Wi-Fi Alliance officially released Wi-Fi 7 on January 8, 2024. With the available 320 MHz channels in 6 GHz, Wi-Fi can now deliver speeds over 10 Gbps (using four MIMO streams), helping to ensure that Wi-Fi keeps pace with advances in internet service speeds and increasing application requirements.

Driving the Need for Additional Unlicensed Spectrum

U.S. and other governments must continue to allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed use not only to keep pace with the growing demand for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies but also to remain ahead of the technology curve. Allocating additional unlicensed spectrum will fully enable and maximize the benefits of emerging applications and functionality, which will translate to an expected $5 trillion in annual global economic value by 2025. The drivers of necessary additional unlicensed spectrum are discussed below.

Increasingly capable broadband services and growing consumer demand for more connected devices, higher throughput, lower latency and increased reliability. History has made clear that total data usage and bandwidth requirements will only grow in coming years and most of that data will be carried over Wi-Fi, as noted above. This growth will be enabled by the ubiquitous availability of increasingly capable broadband services: 10 gigabit and beyond (e.g., DOCSIS 4.0, 10G-EPON, XGS-PON, 25G-PON). To this end, the U.S. government is investing well over $40 billion to deploy highly capable fiber-based networks. Data and bandwidth usage growth will also be driven by more connected devices and increased use of real-time and data-intensive applications such as new interactive VR/AR experiences. We’ve seen the average number of connected devices per home grow from 13 in 2021 to 17 in Q3 2023 — an increase of over 30 percent in less than two years and a trend we expect to continue. We also continue to see average fixed broadband residential data usage increase — currently, on average, over 640 GB per month. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption and use of video conferencing and other cloud-based tools. As the FCC has explained, “video conferencing has grown from a niche product to a central pillar of our communications infrastructure.” Because consumers no longer connect devices using an ethernet cable, but rather rely on Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, the government must also continue to make additional unlicensed spectrum available to ensure the government’s investment in broadband deployment actually reaches end-devices and enables the critical applications of today and tomorrow.

Supporting new features and functionality of Wi-Fi 7 and beyond. Additional unlicensed spectrum is also needed to make room for the coming features and functionality of Wi-Fi 7 and beyond. The release of Wi-Fi 7 introduced new features and functionality; of note, Wi-Fi 7 now includes support for 320 MHz channels and Multi-Link Operation (MLO). Both features enable higher throughput and lower latency through the use of wider channels and multiple channels — features not available in prior generations of Wi-Fi. Moreover, IEEE is already working on 802.11bn, the standard that will underpin Wi-Fi 8. The emerging focus is on Ultra High Reliability (UHR) where additional spectrum becomes even more critical to meet performance goals in light of potential channel contention from high-density client environments, adjacent Wi-Fi networks or other unlicensed use.

The technical limitations enabling the 6 GHz innovative sharing framework. The FCC’s innovative unlicensed sharing framework in 6 GHz is a huge success, protecting mission-critical incumbents and allowing for expanded Wi-Fi use at the same time. Moreover, this sharing framework eliminated the need to relocate incumbents, enabling the rapid realization of the benefits of this additional unlicensed spectrum to consumers and enterprise users alike.

To ensure safe coexistence, the FCC established a detailed unlicensed spectrum sharing framework, including Low Power Indoor-only (LPI) restrictions across the band and more recently Very Low Power (VLP) restrictions and database-controlled (by an AFC database) standard-power capabilities available in certain parts of the band, as detailed above. To accommodate these restrictions, Wi-Fi requires more bandwidth to deliver high speeds and employs more spectrum-intensive techniques, such as mesh networking, to achieve the needed coverage. For example, mesh networking requires additional overhead to backhaul and coordinate the mesh traffic, reducing the overall data-carrying capacity of the available channels. One approach to avoid mesh networking is to use a higher-power channel. However, under the current FCC rules, Wi-Fi can access, at most, only one standard-power 320 MHz wide channel through an AFC system.

Between the power limits and other regulatory restrictions placed on LPI and VLP operations and the limited availability of standard power channels under an AFC, the 1,200 MHz available for unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band is unable to provide the needed coverage, throughput, capacity and latency performance that will be expected and required by consumers and enterprise users in the near future. Additional unlicensed spectrum will allow consumers and enterprise users to more fully benefit from Wi-Fi 7’s new features, enabling better user experiences.

It’s Up to Government

Taking all these drivers into account and considering the value that unlicensed spectrum will continue to deliver to global economies, the United States and other governments around the world should waste no time identifying meaningful additional unlicensed spectrum, particularly given that any additional unlicensed spectrum will likely have similar regulatory technical limits as 6 GHz unlicensed use.



Building a Smarter 5G Future Through Open RAN Development

Open RAN Technical Summit

David Debrecht
Vice President, Wireless Technologies

Nov 29, 2023

Technological advancements are paving the way for flexible, cost-efficient and scalable solutions that will transform our digital lives. For the mobile industry, this means helping revolutionize the telecommunications landscape by harnessing the capabilities of 5G to redefine connectivity. This fifth generation of cellular wireless network technology is delivering faster speeds and will soon deliver lower latency — enabling powerful, cutting-edge applications and Internet of Things devices.

But to fully realize 5G’s potential, the network infrastructure behind it requires modernization. Operators often are limited by the hardware and software used in cellular networks. Traditional radio access networks (RANs) lock an operator into a single equipment supplier’s technology, leading to higher costs and less innovation in the industry.

Open RAN, by contrast, opens up possibilities for the infrastructure. It enables equipment interoperability to drive innovation, reduce costs and create more resilient, reliable and secure networks — big advantages for both the industry and end users.

CableLabs recently wrapped up a day packed with insightful discussions about Open RAN — what it is, where it’s going and how we’ll realize its potential. The presentations and conversations took place at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2023. Speakers and panelists during Expo’s Open RAN Technical Summit included industry analysts and experts from some of the world’s leading mobile operators and equipment vendors. We also heard from CableLabs’ own experts as well as representatives from government Open RAN programs in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Why Open RAN?

Before I dive into some of the highlights from the Technical Summit sessions, you might be wondering: Why is CableLabs — a company founded to advance cable technology collaboration and innovation — focusing on a wireless architecture like Open RAN?

The answer is simple: It mirrors the priorities of our members. More than half of CableLabs member companies also offer mobile services, and finding solutions for future 5G networks is high on their list. For these mobile network operators (MNOs) to successfully navigate the path toward the wireless networks of the future, they’ll require a robust and open ecosystem.

The development of the open architecture is in its early stages, and — as several speakers during the Technical Summit noted — we’ll start to see the fruits of our collective labor pay off in the next few years. Below are other key takeaways from the speakers and panelists in the operator, vendor and government sessions during the Open RAN Technical Summit event.

Operator Deployments and Planning

MNOs around the world are working on solutions for more flexible and cost-effective networks. To enhance their 5G network capabilities, operators actively collaborate with solution providers and help lead conversations in the industry to foster innovation and accelerate the development and deployment of Open RAN. Here’s a look at a few of the topics discussed during the Technical Summit’s sessions with operators:

A key topic and initiative. MNOs originated the work on Open RAN many years ago to tackle the key points noted above, and their interest continues. Earlier this year, a coalition of European operators — Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia (TIM), Telefónica and Vodafone — published their latest report on the state of the ecosystem, “Open RAN MoU Progress Update on Maturity, Security and Energy Efficiency.”

Ramping up deployments and commitments. Operators at the forefront of Open RAN deployment include Vodafone, which has committed to 30 percent of its sites deploying Open RAN throughout Europe by the year 2030. Also, Dish Networks has deployed Open RAN across its greenfield network in the U.S. over the last couple of years.

Ongoing research and development. Not all MNOs are actively deploying Open RAN, but all are researching, testing, trialing or involved in other similar activities. Some operators just finished deploying their 5G networks using traditional RAN networks and vendors, but they are already working to understand when the time will be right to start deploying Open RAN.

Suppliers Partnering for Innovation

As the industry moves toward more open and modular RAN architectures, vendors aren’t just contributors to the development; they’re also key drivers of innovation. Their solutions must meet the demands for security, efficiency and sustainability to enable the next generation of wireless networks. Solution providers around the world are involved in advancing Open RAN innovations, and, during the summit, we heard from a few of these traditional vendors and newer suppliers. Here’s a glance at what was discussed in the sessions:

Commitments from leading suppliers. Ericsson announced in September and restated in partnership with Vodafone its support and plans for Open RAN at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Fyuz Conference in Madrid in October. They further confirmed this and additional details about their plans at Cable-Tec Expo.

Multi-supplier networks: Nokia has also recently made commitments to support the Open RAN ecosystem with its solutions and announced deployments with Docomo in Asia. The company also recently announced a partnership with Mavenir to “prove Open RAN system performance.”

Interoperability activities. Mavenir and other newer vendors that have focused on Open RAN have been active in interoperability activities and events like the 5G Challenge and O-RAN Open Test and Integration Center (OTIC) PlugFests for a number of years already.

A Boost at the Government Level

Open RAN development hasn’t been limited to industry players. With its promise to make networks more open, flexible and inclusive, it’s no surprise that governments around the world are taking note. This significant investment of capital and resources at the government level will result in a more diverse and competitive marketplace, a more resilient and secure supply chain, and improved national security. The summit highlighted the work in this sphere, including:

Government strategy. Agencies such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA’s) Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) in the U.S. and the U.K.’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) are heavily invested in jumpstarting the development and eventual deployment of products for 5G networks. Other governments that are investing in the development of the ecosystem include Canada, Germany, Australia, India, South Korea and Singapore.

Active participation and promotion. Activities such as the recent 5G Challenge — for which CableLabs served as the host lab — and the U.K.’s similar Future RAN Competition (FRANC) are designed to foster collaboration and accelerate commercial adoption of Open RAN solutions.

Accelerating Adoption Through Activities

These important discussions during the Open RAN Technical Summit only scratch the surface of the work that CableLabs and others are doing to develop interoperable solutions that will advance 5G networks. Involvement in PlugFests and events like the 5G Challenge — as well as industry working groups, field trials and ongoing standards work with the O-RAN Alliance — place operators, vendors and government agencies chief among the experts at the forefront of developing Open RAN solutions.

CableLabs’ involvement in this area isn’t new, and our commitment to Open RAN is only growing stronger. My recent participation this month on a panel at the Joint O-RAN Software Community (OSC)/Open Source Focus Group (OSFG) and OpenAirInterface (OAI) Workshop is another recent example of how our Wireless Technologies team continually keeps these conversations going with other stakeholders.

Our work continues, along with our involvement in 3GPP, O-RAN Alliance and TIP. Together, we’ll move the industry toward our mutual goal of a fully interoperable, virtual, multivendor 5G network. To stay up to date on CableLabs’ work in Open RAN and other mobile technology areas, click the button below to subscribe to our blog.



NTIA Announces the Full Roster of 5G Challenge Contestants

5G Challenge Contestants

David Debrecht
Vice President, Wireless Technologies

Jun 2, 2022

CableLabs congratulates Capgemini Engineering, Fujitsu Network Communications, Mavenir Systems Inc., Radisys Corporation and Signal System Management for being selected as contestants in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (NTIA-ITS) 5G Challenge. The competition is hosted by CableLabs. Including Rakuten, the early bird contestant, this group of six participants highlights the diversity of vendors working to develop open and interoperable networks for 5G and beyond.

Collectively, nine subsystems will be tested from the contestants, which vary from well-established vendors in the telecom space to newer entrants in the ecosystem of emerging technologies involving the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN). The 5G Challenge prize competition aims to accelerate the adoption of open interfaces, interoperable components and multi-vendor solutions toward the development of an open 5G ecosystem.

Cutting-Edge Lab Capabilities

Over the past few months, CableLabs’ expert technical team prepared its state-of-the-art 5G Lab by adding new lab capabilities to test contestants’ O-RAN subsystems. The capabilities include Viavi’s TeraVM and TM 500 systems for wrap-around testing on each of the O-RAN subsystems—Centralized Unit (CU), Distributed Unit (DU) and Radio Unit (RU)—and one of the industry’s first Open Distributed Unit (O-DU) testers. CableLabs and Kyrio staff are finalizing work to ensure that participants can reliably and securely test the support of industry specifications and the interoperability of the contestants’ subsystems. Multiple CU, DU and RU systems will be tested during the 5G Challenge with the goal of accelerating the development and deployment of O-RAN in the 5G ecosystem.

The test plans for each O-RAN subsystem were developed by CableLabs in conjunction with the NTIA to focus on conformance with the O-RAN Alliance and 3GPP specifications. Each system will be tested for integration, interface conformance, functionality and performance. These tests will provide information to the vendors, NTIA-ITS, the Department of Defense and the larger 5G ecosystem about the current status of the O-RAN vendor community, the benefits of interoperability, and the potential for future development of open and interoperable systems for 5G and future wireless networks.

Staff Expertise and Analysis

Contestants and the government will not only benefit from access to the state-of-the-art 5G Lab but also from access to the wireless network expertise of CableLabs and Kyrio staff. Staff will assist each contestant team to ensure complete and accurate testing. As the Host Lab, CableLabs will also provide technical analysis of each test to NTIA-ITS.

We’re looking forward to seeing all the contestants at the 5G Lab this summer and continuing CableLabs’ long-term investment in open and interoperable networks.



Accelerating 5G Network Innovation: CableLabs Named Host Lab for 5G Challenge

5G Challenge

David Debrecht
Vice President, Wireless Technologies

Mar 2, 2022

Bringing rapid innovation and increased diversity and competition to mobile services is a national imperative. To accomplish this goal, the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS)—the research and engineering arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—is encouraging the evolution of open and interoperable 5G networks through the 5G Challenge.

The goal of the 5G Challenge is to accelerate the development and widespread deployment of open and interoperable 5G networks with true plug-and-play operation. In support of this effort, CableLabs was recently named the Host Lab for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and NTIA 5G Challenge. CableLabs brings an advanced mobile wireless network laboratory and expertise with open and interoperable network technologies to this collaborative initiative.

The 5G Challenge will leverage CableLabs’ recent lab deployment of fully virtualized 5G networks, including multiple cores, multiple radio access networks and new network emulation equipment—as well as our growing expertise in mobile network technologies. Moreover, CableLabs is well situated to host the 5G Challenge, given our long-standing role in the industry and our work with multiple vendors to drive interoperable network technologies. The value of CableLabs’ 5G lab extends well beyond this challenge as a resource for ongoing research and development and interoperability testing in mobile network technologies.

CableLabs is deeply involved in the industry’s work to develop flexible 5G technologies—including at 3GPP, O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP)—to enable new vendor opportunities, enhance network security and streamline integration and interoperability. We’ll leverage this experience and our state-of-the-art 17,000-square-foot lab to host a successful 5G Challenge that meets NTIA’s goals. We’re constantly building for the future and looking to support initiatives and vendors that can help us revolutionize the technology the world relies on. More details will be available this spring when NTIA releases the invitation to participate in the challenge.

Read more about the 5G Challenge initiative by visiting NTIA’s site.