On April 23, 2020 the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a Report and Order adopting rules to make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band—a band of airwaves used for communications in the operation of electric, oil, natural gas, and water companies—also available for unlicensed use by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected consumer products. The FCC stated that expanding unlicensed broadband operations would provide opportunity for innovation and improve broadband speed and connectivity. The FCC also adopted an Automated Frequency Coordination (“AFC”) system to prevent unlicensed use from interfering with incumbent users including utilities. The Report and Order follows a December 2019 letter from FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee and Commissioners Richard Glick and Bernard McNamee to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, urging the FCC to consider additional testing of the AFC system to guarantee that unlicensed devices do not interfere with incumbent users.

As licensed users, utilities use the 6 GHz spectrum band to support their real time operations. For example, electric utilities use the 6 GHz band for supervisory control and data acquisition used to monitor and control generating units, transmission lines, and substation equipment. The FCC began considering rules to open the 6 GHz spectrum to unlicensed use in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in October 2018. FERC’s December 2019 letter to FCC Chairman Pai asked the FCC to “consider the [proposal’s] implications for electric reliability,” given that “reliable and secure communication among electric power system facilities is vital to delivering safe and reliable electricity to all customers.” FERC also urged the FCC to “consider requests from electric utilities and state regulators for additional testing of the AFC system prior to implementation.”

The FCC’s Report and Order stated that the new rules “account for the concerns raised by parties representing the various incumbent services that operate in the 6 GHz band, weigh the various technical studies presented by proponents of unlicensed operations as well as representatives of incumbent services, and address how the rules . . . will enable unlicensed operations to operate in the 6 GHz band and protect the various incumbent services.” In a statement issued with the Report and Order, FCC Chairman Pai stated that the new rules will facilitate the next generation of Wi-Fi that is two and a half times faster than the current standard. Chairman Pai pointed to the current COVID-19 crisis and its implications for remote work, distance learning, telemedicine, and online communications as one factor supporting the new rules.

The FCC’s April 23 Report and Order, along with statements issued by FCC Chairman Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr, Jessica Rosenworcel, and Geoffrey Starks are available here; FERC’s letter to Chairman Pai is available here.