Wi-Fi-Pai: could Wi-Fi be the new US technology poster child?

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Dec 8, 2020

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai    via Flickr © Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai via Flickr © Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Ensuring US technology leadership via 5G looks uncertain - even if the Open RAN movement gathers pace
  • But Wi-Fi. There’s a real American-style technology the nation could get behind
  • Outgoing FCC chairman Ajit Pai seems to think so

Outgoing FCC chairman Ajit Pai was often accused of a distinct telco bias when it came to consumer v. telco controversies. Famously he spearheaded the commission’s repeal of net neutrality and talked of firing up his “weed whacker” to clear away what he perceived as dense thickets of regulation (which might also be known as consumer protections).

But despite all the telco love, there’s also a distinct streak of Wi-Fi geekery apparent in the Pai personna, not a trait usually found in a telecoms fanboi. Indeed, the two ‘sides’ - Wi-Fi and Telecoms - are often thought of as daggers-drawn although admittedly less so now in the era of 5G when Wi-Fi might play an enabling role. 

Actually Pai has done much for the Wi-Fi ‘cause’ in his four year reign, not just waving through  important Wi-Fi measures, such as the FCC’s landmark action earlier this year, when it made up to 1,200 megahertz of spectrum available for higher powered unlicensed use, but actually banged the drum for the technoogy when he did so. 

Then again on Monday the commission authorised the first Wi-Fi device for use in the 6 GHz spectrum band (5.925–7.125 GHz) certifying Broadcom’s BCM4389 client (smartphone) chipset. This specifically means that the Wi-Fi connectivity function of future Samsung and Apple Wi-Fi 6E-capable phones is now authorised for use on the US market. 

Again, Pai made a big thing of this, arguably way above and beyond the call of regulatory duty, writing, “Today, we get an exciting glimpse of America’s Wi-Fi future.  This is the FCC’s first authorization of a device to provide unlicensed services in the 6 GHz spectrum band under the Commission’s new rules.  

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all seen how Wi-Fi has enabled everything from work-at-home to telehealth to remote learning to streaming and gaming.  Wi-Fi 6 will turbocharge each of these and more, and will also complement commercial 5G networks.  Bottom line: The American consumer’s wireless experience is about to be transformed for the better.”

That sounds a  lot like a transfer of the often-heard aspiration for “American technology leadership” from 5G to Wi-Fi. Indeed, while the US might oust Huawei from telecoms infrastructure,  it will clearly be struggling to replace it via US companies. So handing the technology baton to a field that really could be an expression of  American technology leadership - Wi-Fi - could be a way to score a policy win for Pai and something to show for four years’ work.

To quote Pai again: “This is not the time, and this is not the agency, for tinkering around the edges.” 

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