With help from Derek Robertson
For years, big consumer-tech companies like Meta, Apple and Google have been leaning on the government to free up little pieces of the wireless spectrum as “unlicensed” airwaves — meaning anyone can use those airwaves for free.
What are they after, exactly?
These aren’t wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon — big players who bid huge amounts of money to license parts of the spectrum for their own use, competing with other big users like the Pentagon, air-traffic control and radio stations. Some of these tech firms, like Meta, aren’t normally associated with hardware at all, despite their occasional efforts to get into the device market.
Their interest in the airwaves says a lot about where they think the future of human connection will be.
And it’s partly inside your house. Bluetooth devices and home routers use “unlicensed” parts of the spectrum, which means that anyone can make devices that use those airwaves. The consumer-tech companies notched a big win in 2020 when they convinced the Federal Communications Commission to free up a giant band known as the 6 GHz for unlicensed use — giving home Wi-Fi devices access to new bandwidth that boosted their capacity fivefold. More unlicensed spectrum means less congestion for Wi-Fi and other devices that send data wirelessly.
These Wi-Fi advocates are now pushing U.S. federal regulators to both target brand-new chunks of spectrum — like the adjacent 7 GHz band — for unlicensed use, as well as to allow even more freedom for how companies can tap into the 6 GHz band.
This is a technical-sounding push that could have a big influence on the next wave of electronics and digital platforms. Anyone shopping for wireless routers can already see it in the consumer marketplace — just as cellphones have generations like 4G and 5G, there are also generations of Wi-Fi technology. Home routers typically used what’s called “Wi-Fi 5” and “Wi-Fi 6”, and the industry has already revamped Wi-Fi 6 device standards to take advantage of the new 6 GHz spectrum. (Wi-Fi 6 routers able to tap into this newly available spectrum are branded “Wi-Fi 6E” and were rapidly rolled out.)
At CES this month, home networking companies TP-Link and MediaTek touted offerings built around the next set of Wi-Fi standards, called Wi-Fi 7, even though those standards are still being finalized.
“Every single operator that I’m aware of — major operator, located in the U.S. or Europe — has 6 GHz Wi-Fi on their roadmap, whether it’s Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 7,” Chris Szymanski, who directs product marketing at chipmaker Broadcom, told me.
So what does this mean for consumers? And why does Meta care?
The underlying goal of these tech companies and their allies in the push for unlicensed spectrum, like cable operators, is to free up a pipeline of available, unlicensed frequencies enabling the huge amounts of data transfer needed for futuristic apps like augmented and virtual reality, as well what Szymanski calls “a glitch-free experience.”
As a policy debate, the fight to prioritize Wi-Fi and other unlicensed use of the airwaves is central to today’s spectrum arguments in Washington, and their outcome could dictate the next several years of U.S. tech policy. Congress is negotiating a package of spectrum legislation eyeing these issues, still largely in flux but pegged to the reauthorization of FCC spectrum powers set to expire in March.
And this debate is likely to be central to the Biden administration’s promised National Spectrum Strategy, which could come this year, and set goals for how airwaves get into the hands of the private sector.
Naturally, there’s a lobbying war over this part of the future, given there’s only so much spectrum to go around.
The whole thing shakes out — broadly — into an argument between the big telecoms that want more spectrum to carry their cell signals, and the consumer-tech and cable companies who want to be sure there’s a wide-open playing field for device innovation.
The big wireless carriers would prefer the government sell more licensed spectrum to support 5G and future 6G cellular service. The airwaves are considered a public resource, so government sales of licensed spectrum also raise more money to pay U.S. national debt, they argue, and these billions of dollars could be earmarked to support the country’s digital goals.
“You’ve got to take the revenue into account,” Tom Power, general counsel for cellular trade group CTIA, told me late last year. “If you’re not licensing the spectrum, you’re foregoing that revenue. It’s a cost that the government incurs if you don’t pursue it.”
The next frontier of the argument is likely to be allowing portable devices like smartphones to also freely use these 6 GHz airwaves, which could drive mobile applications aiding a host of people on the go, like commuters and travelers. Europe and several countries beyond already allow this, according to Broadcom’s Szymanski, who notes that the U.S., as an early adopter market, could shape what comes next.
“You’re not going to see metaverse-like applications, such as augmented reality, take off until portable devices are authorized,” Szymanski predicted. “Hopefully we can get portable operations enabled by the end of this year.”
One of the GOP’s leading voices on crypto got chatty in today’s Morning Money newsletter about the first Financial Services subcommittee dedicated to the topic.
Speaking with POLITICO’s Zachary Warmbrodt, Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) said his vision for the panel is to guide the development and proliferation of blockchain “in a way that’s consistent with American laws and tradition and commercial practices.”
Hill mentioned stablecoin legislation as a “logical starting place” for the new Congress, citing how “staff and our full House Republican team, all the members, were very engaged last August through October working with House Democrats on an idea around stablecoin definitions and regulation.”
However, he also echoed something Blockchain Association president Kristin Smith predicted to me when I spoke with her earlier this month: That the FTX collapse will actually make crypto regulation more complicated, as, in Hill’s words, “…Congress also has many different viewpoints now following the FTX collapse.” —Derek Robertson
A tidbit from deep in the regulatory state: The Office of Financial Research, a bureau within the Treasury that’s been mostly dormant during and after the Trump presidency, has a new chief.
POLITICO’s Victoria Guida covered the news for Pro subscribers yesterday that Ron Borzekowski, a former top staffer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, would take the position. Borzekowski has deep knowledge of the kind of unpredictable events that led to the 2008 financial crisis — in fact, as Victoria notes, he was a senior economist for the Federal Reserve who helped write the official report on the 2008 financial crisis.
Which, for DFD’s purposes, is especially relevant: The Office of Financial Research called last month for more granular data on crypto lenders, the better to understand whether, or how, turmoil in digital markets might affect the traditional one. —Derek Robertson
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Steve Heuser ([email protected]); and Benton Ives ([email protected]). Follow us @DigitalFuture on Twitter.
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