FCC clears the way for Wi-Fi 6E on 6GHz band

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The FCC is opening up part of the 6GHz spectrum for unlicensed use.

Wi-Fi is something that everyone takes for granted. You don’t start thinking about it until it isn’t available. These days, that doesn’t happen very often. Just about every public establishment has Wi-Fi and the same is true for the overwhelming majority of households.

Today marks an occasion that warrants thinking about Wi-Fi—specifically its future. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just voted to open up the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. In other words, internet routers will be able to broadcast on even more airwaves.

This is arguably the biggest upgrade to Wi-Fi in the 20 years since it was first made available. Dubbed Wi-Fi 6E, the new spectrum will officially become available in late 2020. In the years to come, it will provide faster speeds, lower latency, and open up a world of possibilities for businesses and consumers alike.

What is 6GHz Wi-Fi?

Many people don’t realize that Wi-Fi isn’t just a simple connection. Today, it spans both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums. Each has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. However, allowing routers to broadcast on both spectrums helps decrease congestion and makes connections faster.

The same will be true when the 6GHz spectrum is added later this year. Essentially, it quadruples the amount of digital space there is for routers and devices to operate in. For end users, there will be more bandwidth to go around. Devices that are able to take advantage of the new spectrum will also experience faster speeds and less interference.

Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, says, “This is the most monumental decision around Wi-Fi spectrum in its history, in the 20 years we’ve been around.”

The agency oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi and is backed by companies in the industry.

It is expected that devices will start supporting 6GHz Wi-Fi by the end of 2020. Consumers will need to be on the lookout for gadgets that support “Wi-Fi 6E” as that is the branded name for the new spectrum. It’s worth pointing out that this differs from “Wi-Fi 6” which is supported by many devices on the market today.

To get a bit technical, the FCC ruling is opening up 1,200MHz of spectrum space in the 6GHz band. Since its invention in 1989, Wi-Fi has been operating with about 400MHz of spectrum. Obviously, the upgrade is going to add a ton of capacity for new devices.

As of now, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums are filling up fast. With more routers and devices going online every day, consumers are finding that their connections aren’t what they once were. Robinson notes that this shouldn’t be the case with the new 6GHz spectrum. Since it is so big, the improvements that it brings should last for years. He says, “We will not be in the same position we are today five years from now.”

Faster Speeds

As mentioned, each type of spectrum has its advantages. The new 6GHz band delivers slightly faster speeds. However, the increase in space to decongest airwaves will be even more beneficial.

6GHz Wi-Fi has the same theoretical top speed as 5GHz Wi-Fi. Both spectrums clock in at 9.6 Gbps.

Sadly, that blazing fast speed never occurs in real life. Instead, the abundance of new airwaves will help users attain faster speeds. Robinson notes that a Wi-Fi-connected smartphone could see speeds in the neighborhood of 1-2 Gbps. Interestingly, that compares to what people can expect from millimeter-wave 5G networks. Which, to this point, have been extremely hard to find.

While home Internet providers will still be a bottleneck to faster speeds, it is noteworthy that Wi-Fi will remain competitive with 5G. Many wondered if people would opt to use mobile 5G networks with faster speeds instead of crowded Wi-Fi connections. Thanks to the addition of the 6GHz spectrum that shouldn’t be necessary.

The Downside

While there are numerous benefits to adding more spectrum space there are some drawbacks as well. The biggest is the fact that consumers will need to upgrade their hardware to start seeing the benefits of Wi-Fi 6E.

Not only will people need gadgets that support the spectrum, they also need a router that can broadcast in it. For many consumers, making these upgrades isn’t feasible—at least not in the short term. This means that most of us will be stuck using the same Wi-Fi spectrum that our devices shipped with for the next several years.

As such, adoption of Wi-Fi 6E could be slow. Despite the fact that it will start rolling out this year, don’t expect it to become common anytime soon.

When Will 6GHz Wi-Fi Devices Arrive?

As with any major tech upgrade, the transition won’t be quick. Moving to the 6GHz spectrum will require consumer device and router manufacturers to be on board.

Thus far, it appears that there is plenty of support from these companies. Broadcom has already announced a Wi-Fi 6E mobile chip. Meanwhile, both Qualcomm and Intel have pledged to support 6GHz Wi-Fi in next-gen products.

On the router side, Linksys and Netgear are developing new devices. These will likely arrive in the early part of 2021 and will be some of the first gadgets to support the 6GHz spectrum.

Previously, Apple noted that the FCC’s approval “sets the course for the next generation of Wi-Fi networks.” That’s a positive signal from one of the world’s biggest consumer device manufacturers.

It won’t be surprising if smartphones are the first devices to support Wi-Fi 6E. Phil Solis, a wireless analyst with IDC, estimates that 316 million devices that work with the 6GHz spectrum will ship in 2021.

He says, “Wi-Fi’s a very important part of the phone, so higher-end phones have higher quality Wi-Fi chips in them. Smartphones are a key product that makes sense for 6E because people use their phones for pretty much everything.”

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