Wi-Fi 6E Is Coming – The Biggest Upgrade In 25 Years

The most important feature of Wi-Fi is not its ubiquity, but its speed. Normally, almost everyone tapping on to any Wi-Fi network would be looking at the speed in which access can be delivered to their many devices concurrently – but in this case, it’s also the speed in which Wi-Fi has been updated since its debut almost 30 years ago. 

Image credit: Cisco

Barely one year after rolling out Wi-Fi 6 (though not in full capacity), the latest in a series of speed upgrades that boosts security and capacity, the technology is getting another upgrade: support for a brand-new spectrum of the 6GHz band tailored for next-gen Wi-Fi 6 devices, officially named Wi-Fi 6E, where E stands for ‘extension’.

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This comes after a voting session from regulatory body Federal Communications Commission (FCC) garnered unanimous agreement to open up the entire spectrum band for unlicensed use in support of Wi-Fi 6. To complement the technology, which only started hitting the market in 2019, the first of Wi-Fi 6E products are expected to arrive by the end of this year.

It’s a significant milestone for the Wi-Fi community. While the standard has undergone refreshes from its early days to the current 2.4G and 5G bands, this is the biggest spectrum addition since Wi-Fi was approved by the FCC in 1989. That’s about 30 years – and about 10 years more than the inception of Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry organisation that oversees the certification of Wi-Fi devices and standards.

Kevin Robinson, marketing leader of the governing body shared, “This is the most monumental decision around Wi-Fi spectrum in its history, in the years we’ve been around.”

Indeed, there appears to be much in store for consumers. The capabilities of the Wi-Fi 6 spectrum are extremely powerful, bringing in four times the amount of space available for routers and other devices, resulting in faster data rates, and lower latency.

Here’s a quick low-down of what customers can look forward to with the introduction of next-gen Wi-Fi technology.

Ushering in the new age of Wi-Fi 6
The working fundamentals of Wi-Fi involve broadcasting airwaves that are open for use – which is also what “unlicensed use” refers to. Two bands are in operation now: 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with Wi-Fi 6 being able to run on both before eventually branching out into 1GHz and 6Hz. What this translates to is backward compatibility.

More importantly, the new standard is designed to combat congestion in crowded settings, such as households with multiple devices that ride on the same Wi-Fi signal. Because Wi-Fi 6 routers can handle four times as many gadgets than the existing Wi-Fi 5, and at speeds up to 40% faster to boot, transmissions are set to be quicker and more efficient with little interference.

Short-range connections would seem to be the best fit for the 6GHz band, where pockets of data can bounce back and forth over a small distance. An allegorical way of looking at it is a six-armed bartender handing out cocktails to a group of individuals (greater efficiency), but whose movement is confined to only the counter area (not as far-reaching). 

It’s important to note, too, that while Wi-Fi 6 was technically available on the market prior to this news drop, it didn’t receive full approval for free, unlicensed use. With the official go-ahead from the FCC, 1,200 megahertz of the 6GHz band have now been freed up, and will join the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, resulting in the brand-new Wi-Fi 6E standard.

Wi-Fi 6E vs Wi-Fi 6: What’s the difference? 

Wi-Fi 6E works by tapping into the aforementioned unlicensed 6Hz spectrum for Wi-Fi use, and functions similarly to Wi-Fi 6. Its extra bandwidth, however, means there will soon be non-overlapping channels, allowing for 14 additional 80MHz channels, and seven additional 160MHz channels (thanks Digital Trends, for the figures). Wi-Fi 6E devices are thus expected to offer the same benefits as their older counterpart, such as enhanced performance, higher throughput, and reduced latency. 

Much like Wi-Fi 6 devices, they should also be able to function alongside one another while boasting backward compatibility with old Wi-Fi gadgets – but client devices won’t be able to operate in the exclusive 6GHz band. Because of the increased spectrum, Wi-Fi 6 devices are unable to make use of Wi-Fi 6E; only Wi-Fi 6E products can do so. 

Why Wi-Fi 6E is a big deal

The introduction of Wi-Fi 6E is a significant milestone, for reasons more than upgraded performance. By opening up the 6GHz band, the problem of “spectrum shortage” – coined by Wi-Fi Alliance – can be alleviated, such that the increasing demand for Wi-Fi won’t surpass the actual capacity of currently available unlicensed bandwidth. The 14 extra 80MHz and seven 160MHz channels that were brought up before can supposedly fix the shortage, as the increased capacity allows for faster and more efficient transmissions to meet the needs of Wi-Fi intensive tasks. 

The future of Wi-Fi 6E

The improved capabilities of Wi-Fi 6E will prove useful in this technological era of IoT (Internet of Things) and connectivity. Smart home ecosystems, for instance, may encounter slower Wi-Fi speeds due to a denser network – something the new standard can alleviate with its ability to increase traffic flow without reducing the transmission speeds. 

More novel technology has also spawned over time, from the likes of VR and AR gaming, to 4K and 8K video streams. Sophistication calls for the need for proper Wi-Fi infrastructure, however, and slower speeds are definitely insufficient to keep up with the performance demand, so here’s when the advanced features of Wi-Fi 6E come into play; more specifically, its cleaner, larger bandwidth that grants higher data rates and true mobility. 

The arrival of Wi-Fi 6E, while welcome, is quite the surprise, especially with the recent ushering in of Wi-Fi 6 a mere year ago. Its far-reaching potential is clear, with high-profile devices like the iPhone SE and Samsung Galaxy S10 pledging support, and early adopters jumping in on all the Wi-Fi 6 benefits. But Wi-Fi 6E is very clearly still in the early stages, and it’d take a little longer for the industry to adopt it, which is a silver lining for those who already own Wi-Fi 6 devices, and are in the upper echelons of the Wi-Fi world. The recommended way would be to wait for the new standard to be polished up and stabilised, before making the upgrade. 

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