Wi-Fi 6 devices have been available for the better part of last year, but it was only in September 2019 when Wi-Fi Alliance started Wi-Fi 6 certification program. And just when consumers were starting to get familiar with Wi-Fi 6, the Alliance announced a new Wi-Fi standard, the Wi-Fi 6E, at CES 2020.
Going by the terminology, Wi-Fi 6E might appear to be an incremental update to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) before Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) is ready for deployment, but the new standard, in fact, represents a major change. Wi-Fi 6E is about opening up of 6GHz band for Wi-Fi, something Broadcom addresses as “ the most disruptive boon for Wi-Fi users in the last twenty years”.
Let’s discuss why the 6GHz band matters and how Wi-Fi 6 and 6E differ from one another.
Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 6E: What’s the difference?
Unlike the previous generations of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6 focused more on improving Wi-Fi stability in congested environments. While there are improvements in peak download or upload speeds, the primary purpose is to provide a reliable internet connection to a larger number of connected devices.
The number of connected devices in modern homes has exponentially increased and IDC projects this number to increase to over 1.3 Billion in the next couple of years. This presents a challenge that Wi-Fi 6 tackled using techniques like 1024QAM and OFDMA.
Without going into technical detail, the idea is to have more simultaneous connections, to use the available bands in a more efficient manner, and to reduce power consumption.
However, over-congestion in the 2GHz to 5GHz spectrum has resulted in a spectrum shortage for Wi-Fi 6 to realize its full potential. And this is a problem Wi-Fi 6E addresses.
Wi-Fi 6E essentially brings Wi-Fi 6 to 6GHz band. Or, in other words, devices capable of supporting Wi-Fi 6 in the 6GHz band will be labeled as Wi-Fi 6E devices. We could see Wi-Fi 6E being marketed as triple-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz, 5GHz, 6GHz)
Wi-Fi 6E means more 160MHz Super Highways
Even without the use of 160 MHz bands, Wi-Fi 6 shows up to 4x higher speeds in congested environments. However, to realize the full potential of Wi-Fi 6 and to achieve those advertised gigabit speeds for applications like streaming 8K, 160MHz superhighways are needed.
As of today, two to three 160MHz channels are available to Wi-Fi 6 devices, but these are also shared with older generation routers that use subsets of the 160MHz band (20MHz, 40MHz, etc) and this highway-sharing slows-down the overall transmission in the available 160MHz bands. Just how racing a Ferrari on a congested road would feel like.
Apart from slower traffic, devices must also avoid Radars (on the same frequency) using Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS).
In fact, most Wi-Fi 6 routers ship with the option to use 160MHz band disabled altogether.
Regulatory restrictions further disallow mobile devices to use 160MHz bands while they act as an access point. What this implies is that your mobile phone can’t use the 160MHz band while being a hotspot and connecting AR and VR peripherals.
To resolve these challenges, Wi-Fi Alliance has been asking regulators to free up the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use. This will free up to 7 contiguous 160MHz channels which is needed to realize the full potential of not only Wi-Fi 6, but also of future Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be), and of 5G NR.
What are the potential applications of Wi-Fi 6E?
Wi-Fi 6E will bring significant improvements in throughput and remarkably improve Wi-Fi latency for close-range communications. This will make it fit for a number of demanding applications and use cases like:
- Mobile AR/ VR gaming
- Deliver efficient gigabit Wi-Fi in smart homes
- low latency Wi-Fi calling
- 4K and 8K streaming
- High-speed tethering
- Real-time gaming
- Connectivity in your car
- Indoor public venues
- Industrial IoT
- Wi-Fi 6E is also required for data offload from 5G Networks
When will we get Wi-Fi 6E devices in India?
FCC has voted to free 6GHz band in the USA, paving way for Wi-Fi 6E in the country. Europe and Asia still haven’t freed up the band for unlicensed usage. Once the standard gets regulatory approval, time to market won’t be much as upgrading from Wi-Fi 6 to Wi-Fi 6E doesn’t involve major changes for Wi-Fi vendors. At CES 2020, Broadcom even presented an SoC that would enable Wi-Fi 6E on next-gen routers. In India, Wi-Fi 6E deployment could take many more months.
Wi-Fi 6E FAQ
Yes, unlike previous generation Wi-Fi devices, Wi-Fi 6E handles three different Wi-Fi frequencies – 2.4GHz, 5Ghz, and 6GHz.
Is Wi-Fi 6E associated with Tri-band routers?
Actually, No. Wi-Fi 6E is the true triple-band Wi-Fi as it deals with three bands – 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz.
On the other hand, Tri-band routers are routers that stream three different Wi-Fi networks, mostly one 2.4GHz, and two separate 5GHz bands
FCC says the 6GHz transmission will have a similar range as 5GHz band. Transmission speed will improve due to lesser congestion in the 6GHz band (at least for a few more years).
Wi-Fi 6E will make Wi-Fi more reliable for connected IoT devices and free up additional 160MHz bands for demanding applications like 8K streaming, AR & VR, high-speed tethering, etc.