New Wi-Fi 6E Routers Could Be Disastrous for Mission-Critical Services

Humbug, say industry veterans

  • An industry group has warned that using the 6Ghz band, used by Wi-Fi 6E devices, could interfere with critical communication.
  • The group recommends conducting further tests in its letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
  • Wi-Fi industry experts dismissed the claims arguing further testing will do no good and only keep people from experiencing the benefits of the new devices.
Person Using Phone At Desk Next to Router

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Just when you thought you could use that swanky new Wi-Fi 6E router to ferry files across your house at unprecedented speeds, a group warns these new devices could potentially interfere with critical communications.

The National Spectrum Management Association (NSMA) has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), claiming that unlicensed use of the 6GHz band used by Wi-Fi 6E devices could cause disruptions in the communication channels used by first responders, emergency services, utilities, and more. 

"In some scenarios, authorities may need to knock on peoples' doors, informing them that one or more of their Wi-Fi 6E devices are interfering with public safety communications, and that they must turn that device off," NSMA President Joseph Sandri explained to Lifewire in an email exchange. "In particularly dire cases, the homeowner may become liable for the consequences of impacting mission-critical services if their Wi-Fi 6E system is not properly turned off."

Clogged Lines

Back in April 2020, the FCC voted to allow unlicensed use of the 6GHz band, clearing the way for Wi-Fi 6E devices, which were the first generation of Wi-Fi gear to incorporate the 6GHz band.

The FCC’s decision was then challenged, but upheld by a US Court of Appeal in December 2021.

Despite this, Sandri believes the average home user should be particularly concerned about the impact of the proliferation of devices that operate in the 6GHz band.

"For example, devices set on window sills, near open home and garage doors, and  deployed in clusters in multiple-dwelling units, such as apartments and office buildings, could present unacceptable risks," shared Sandri.

Industry experts, however, have expressed skepticism at the claim.

"The FCC has weighed the arguments and authorized the use of 6GHz radios with limitations designed to reduce the impact of these signals on existing infrastructure," Tom Hollingsworth, Networking Analyst at Gestalt IT, told Lifewire over Twitter. "Significant testing was done in advance to ensure there were no issues."

Distraction, Not Disruption

Further dismissing NSMA's arguments, Hollingsworth explains the FCC-approved operation of indoor devices in the 6Ghz band that use an Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system to coordinate protection for existing infrastructure used by critical services.

"If the NSMA has a plan for further reduction of that impact, it's time to put it on the table and solve the issue as 6GHz is deployed," stressed Hollingsworth. "Otherwise, this comes across to the wireless community as trying to halt progress to protect incumbents from getting caught flat-footed."

Aanjhan Ranganathan, Computer Science Professor at Northeastern University, appreciates the issues of both sides.

"On one hand, there's a strong need for expanding the unlicensed spectrum given the rising bandwidth requirements [from software like] VR/AR applications," Ranganathan told Lifewire over email. "On the other hand, we need to protect incumbent services, especially those extensively using the 6GHz band for mission-critical public-safety communications."

woman calling IT support

Fiona Jackson-Downes / Nick White / Getty Images

While Ranganathan thinks there's no silver bullet solution to the problem that would make all stakeholders happy, he suggests the FCC could perhaps take cues from the existing Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) that allows sharing the 3.5 GHz band among three different tiers of users, including both unlicensed and incumbent users such as the Navy.

The NSMA has asked the FCC to conduct well-known and real-world scenario spectrum management tests, chosen by incumbent 6GHz licensees who operate mission-critical systems, prior to launching devices that operate on the 6GHz devices.  

This doesn't impress Hollingsworth, however. "Delaying the deployment of 6GHz until every single corner case can be solved is going to set the wireless industry back a number of years," he retorted.

Correction 9/9/22: Reorganized first quote in third paragraph for clarity, and moved original quote down to ninth paragraph.

Correction 9/15/22: Updated Tom Hollingsworth's company affiliation in paragraph 9.

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