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AT&T Hauls FCC Into Court Over Trump-Era Wi-Fi Expansion

September 21, 2021 by Dan McCue
People pass an AT&T store in New York's Times Square. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

WASHINGTON – Lawyers for AT&T and a host of utility providers and public safety officials squared off against the FCC in a District of Columbia courtroom on Friday in a battle over a Trump-era regulatory change that expanded the use of Wi-Fi on the 6GHz spectrum band.

At issue in the AT&T led lawsuit is whether the traditional users of the 6GHz band are having their operations affected by new Wi-Fi users entering the spectrum.

They are particularly concerned about the proliferation of Wi-FI 6, the next generation of home wireless service, the appeal of which is its ability to handle large amounts of data.

In April 2020, the Federal Communications commission adopted a set of new rules expanding unlicensed operations in the 6GHz band, ushering in the Wi-Fi 6 era. 

Then-FCC Chair Ajit Pai was a particularly gung ho proponent of the move, believing the new spectrum policy would spur the growth of the Internet of Things for connecting appliances, machines, meters, wearables, smart televisions, and industrial sensors for manufacturing.

The following December, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied a request for a stay on the FCC decision, the commission authorized the first Wi-Fi device for use in the spectrum.

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon use the band for backhaul — basically, to connect a cell site with a core network — while others use it to monitor the electric grid and other critical communications. 

They and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International, utilities and others say there aren’t enough protections for incumbents as the band is opened to new unlicensed users.

Though the appellate court denied the request for an emergency stay, it has continued to hear arguments challenging the FCC’s decision. 

In its most recent filing in the case, AT&T argues Wi-Fi users in the 6GHz band are “very likely to result in harmful interference at unpredictable places and times.” 

Tech and campus companies like Comcast, Charter Communications and Facebook support the opening up of the 6GHz band, seeing it as freeing up unused airwaves and improving customer experience for their products.

Speaking shortly after the FCC’s unanimous vote in 2020, Tony Werner, president of TPX, technology, product, Xperience at Comcast Cable, said the decision “would quickly  benefit consumers who are using wi-fi now more than ever to work and learn from home, to watch shows and to videoconference and to shop and get their news.

“The order making 1200 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum available in the 6GHz band will dramatically improve Wi-Fi performance and capacity, and will protect existing users of the spectrum. It is a significant step on the path to deploying next generation, gigabit Wi-Fi services to complement our world class gigabit broadband networks,” Werner said.

Also noteworthy is the fact that lawyers for the Biden administration and acting FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, have defended that Trump-era FCC order. 

“The FCC’s reasoned decision in this case, based on ample evidence in the record, provides more than enough justification for its actions,” the agency argued in a recent court filing.

In fact, the FCC is scheduled to vote on new rules later this month that would implement an automated frequency coordination system in the 6GHz band. The AFC system  is specifically intended to prevent interference to incumbent operations.

The D.C. Circuit judges are David Tatel, a Clinton appointee, Patricia Millett, an Obama appointee, and Justin Walker, a Trump appointee.

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