On May 13, 2016, Ofcom published a consultation on its proposals for increasing the amount of radio spectrum available for Wi-Fi in the 5 GHz band to deliver high speed wireless broadband for consumers.

Previously, in its Digital Communications Review published in February 2016, Ofcom identified a strategic shift towards encouraging large-scale deployment of new ultrafast broadband networks, including fibre direct to homes and business. Faster fixed line broadband speeds mean consumers rely on their Wi-Fi to handle a wide range of high data rate applications, such as live streaming and on-demand video. Demand for Wi-Fi (and other similar technologies) is expected to continue growing as the number of connected wireless devices increases, and those devices make use of ever more high data applications. This demand is likely to place increased pressure on the spectrum over which Wi-Fi is carried.

At present, the spectrum band most commonly used for Wi-Fi in the UK is the 2.4 GHz band (2400-2483.5 MHz). However, use of frequencies in the alternative 5 GHz band is catching up, in line with the development of new Wi-Fi equipment standards. There is more spectrum available in the 5 GHz band than in the 2.4 GHz band, enabling more and wider channels to support high data rate applications. Most new routers and almost all consumer client devices on the market can now use both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

In light of this growing demand, Ofcom proposes to open up a further 125 MHz of 5 GHz spectrum at 5725-5850 MHz – subject to first establishing the correct technical parameters to ensure the appropriate protection of other users of this sub-band. The details of these technical conditions will be the subject of a further consultation. When combined with the existing 5 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum, Ofcom’s proposal will enable the creation of two additional 80 MHz channels to help address consumers’ demand for high data rate applications.

Ofcom seeks the views of stakeholders on what other priorities it should pursue in making additional spectrum available for Wi-Fi, taking account of other users of the 5 GHz band. It has identified a number of further options for bringing more 5 GHz spectrum into use for Wi-Fi, all of which will require international engagement through the EU, CEPT or ITU. Devices able to support additional 5 GHz frequencies are already available on the market – because the sub-bands are already used for Wi-Fi in the USA.

Ofcom wants to know:

  • the views of stakeholders about the future drivers of demand for Wi-Fi and related technologies;
  • which use cases will be most important for consumers;
  • the extent to which technology changes might help to ease demand pressures; and
  • how demand is likely to change in over time.

It also wants to understand how these demands might best be met, depending on the particular type of application and/or location (e.g. indoor versus outdoor).

The options available to Ofcom include:

  • Re-examining the technical requirements for Wi-Fi – such as those designed to protect radars – to ensure they remain fit for purpose and are no more restrictive than necessary;
  • Removing outdoor restrictions on Wi-Fi access to the 5150-5350 MHz range;
  • Retaining the longer term objective of opening up spectrum if possible at 5350-5470 MHz and 5850-5925 MHz.

Ofcom is to seek views on whether stakeholders agree with its suggested priorities or what alternative approaches it should consider.

The consultation is open until 22 July 2016. Responses can be made online using Ofcom’s online consultation response form though larger responses (in particular those including supporting charts, tables or other data) should be sent to Ofcom by email or post.