Big Interview

Saudi Arabia and Wi-Fi 6E


After releasing 23 GHz of spectrum for unlicensed use, Saudi Arabia has become the first country in the MEA to pave the way for Wi-Fi 6E. Melanie Mingas speaks to Hassan Eltom, technical account manager at Ookla

In March, Saudi Arabia’s regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), announced it would release more than 23 GHz of spectrum for “innovative and commercial use”.

Part of its three-year spectrum outlook, the move made the country the first in the Middle East, Africa and Europe to designate all 1200 MHz of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use – i.e. Wi-Fi 6E. Of this, CITC said 4 GHz would be licensed, more than 13 GHz lightly licensed, and 6.2 GHz would be licence-exempt.

The decision – which means there will be 150% more open airwaves that routers can use for new generation Wifi networks – was hailed by the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, Wireless Broadband Alliance, Intel Corporation and Cisco, among others.

Hassan Eltom, technical account manager at Ookla, says: “CITC’s plan to designate 1200 MHz of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use opens the door for Wi-Fi 6E deployments and the opportunity to deliver significant capacity in both consumer and enterprise environments.

“3GPP Release 16 introduces the use of the unlicensed spectrum for 5G (NR-U), both as standalone or anchored with the licensed spectrum. Therefore, 1200 MHz of the 6GHz spectrum can eventually deliver an incremental capacity boost in both fixed and mobile applications,” he adds. The country is also adopting 5G Fixed Wireless Access, with a large roll-out of home and office 5G CPE routers by all of the major operators.

CITC said that by allocating the radio spectrum for the Wi-Fi 6E, Saudi Arabia has now made 2035 MHz of spectrum available for the new generation of Wifi and other licence-exempt technologies — more than any country in the world. And carriers can also use it to boost their 5G networks.

Its auction consultation was published in early June and called for input from “potential investors along with all national and international parties who may wish to acquire spectrum, enter the Saudi market or provide services, irrespective of use case, technology or business model”. The potentially auctioned bands will include 400, 600, 700, 2100 and 3800 MHz.

“As more Wi-Fi 6E devices become commercially available, and with increasing user uptake, we forecast strong future growth in capacity and average mean download speeds in the 6 GHz bands, thereby enabling new business opportunities and use cases,” Eltom adds.

Those use cases will be revealed in time, for now the next step is devices that can handle bigger channels and faster data, not to mention improved security. However, to meet the demands of higher user data rates, sufficient backhaul is required.

Eltom explains: “Wi-Fi 6E-capable user devices are already starting to proliferate, so it’s safe to assume that the initial use of this spectrum will be largely utilised for Wi-Fi 6E applications. In order to achieve higher user data rates, sufficient backhaul will be needed, especially in the enterprise and mobile environments. Furthermore, fibre-fed circuits are well positioned to meet the demands of ultra-high capacity and low latency.”

If fibre does not solve that problem, the current space race will, and CITC has plenty of ambition for the immediate future of connectivity in the kingdom. It is looking for “innovative methods” to utilise the spectrum, such as: spectrum wholesaling; consortia formed of other national or international vendors, operators and technology providers; or even forming a joint venture of representatives from utility and industrial players to serve critical infrastructure service needs and industrial IoT applications.

CITC said it is also “keen to explore a holistic design for this auction to allow fair chance to both terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks to have access to spectrum”.

Saudi may be the first in the MEA to make this move, but the country is in good company on the global stage. Its announcement came more than a year after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did the same in the US, and Canada and Mexico are also now progressing their plans.

“Saudi Arabia took additional time to do research and learn from the FCC’s earlier work,” Eltom says.

“They used insights from Ookla on the gains experienced by countries who already allowed Wifi use in the entire 6 GHz band. From this, Saudi Arabia noticed that the increase of fibre speeds didn’t fully translate to end-users’ increased speeds due to the Wifi bottleneck. Further trials were conducted to verify the potential gains from new Wi-Fi 6E technologies before reaching a conclusion to release the unlicensed spectrum.”