Throughout 2019, we heard a constant drumbeat about newer, faster, better wireless technologies. These included Wi-Fi 6, 5G, CBRS, LoRaWAN, and a plethora of IoT-focused technologies, all backed up with reams of documentation and test results demonstrating their value over their peers.
But in the hype and excitement of these various new technologies – all of which offer legitimate potential – we’ve lost the script. There’s more confusion than clarity, and in many cases the collective understanding about the differentiation and advantages of one technology over others is at best subjective, and at worst, demonstratable only via expensive testing equipment. The advantages are not actually something the average user would experience today.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that though 5G experienced outsized attention in 2019 by both eager carriers and excitable press, Wi-Fi will continue to be the default wireless technology for home, office, and public spaces for the foreseeable future. Lofty claims that 5G will simply and cleanly “replace” Wi-Fi are just false. In fact, adding any new wireless technology will instead require an additional wireless infrastructure to install, manage and secure, which is not something any administrator wants to deal with.
Perhaps to the dismay of people who don’t want another wireless technology term to keep track of, the Wi-Fi Alliance just announced Wi-Fi 6E in January. Wi-Fi 6E refers to the ability for Wi-Fi to leverage the 6 GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi operation, pending final FCC (and other international regulatory agencies) approval. Shortly after the Wi-Fi Alliance announcement, Broadcom became the first vendor to announce availability of a full suite of 6 GHz Wi-Fi chips. I could discuss the technology advantages it offers and pontificate about new 20, 40, 80 & 160 MHz channels, the reductions in CCI or ACI problems (cleaner spectrum) and a greater ability to support high bandwidth applications like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR).
But instead, let’s talk about the real question – should you care about Wi-Fi 6E? Or is it just another technological iteration that users won’t actually notice? To answer that question, let’s look at what Wi-Fi 6E offers the typical user who just wants to watch a game, stream a movie or post a video on their favorite social media site.
The Wi-Fi 6E super highway
Wi-Fi is 21 years old, and over the decades, there have been continuous improvements in reliability, security, and performance. But with Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi takes the next step forward. Forgetting the technology specs, I’ll illustrate the advantages using the analogy of driving down the highway.
When Wi-Fi first appeared, think 802.11a/b/g, we were all on a one-lane road where a few slow vehicles could destroy your network’s aggregate throughput. As newer technologies emerged, such as 802.11n, 802.11ac and 802.11ax, we started to see improvements, and as a result our one-lane road turned into a three-lane interstate highway. 802.11n put us in the right-hand lane, and even though the speed limit said 65 mph, slower cars and congestion still slows everyone down. With the introduction of 802.11ac, we moved into the center lane, theoretically a faster lane, but a couple of slow cars once again quickly degrade overall performance. Finally, we reached 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, which supports multi-user communication and enables more than one client to talk at a time. With Wi-Fi 6, we are in the left lane, taking advantage of faster cars, carpool lanes, and priority lanes combining to offer a higher level of traffic efficiency. But even still, there are intermittent slow cars and John Deere combines that get in your lane and degrade performance.
So what happens when Wi-Fi 6E operates in the 6GHz band? Imagine you’re driving in that left lane, still bumper to bumper. Off to the left you see they are building a brand-new highway with more than four lanes of traffic and virtually no one else is using it. Later this year, they will start to offer an on-ramp to those new lanes and it’s not just more lanes (think channels), but also minimum requirements to access those lanes; no slow cars, no farm tractors, no scooters, only high-performance devices that we networking people call Wi-Fi 6 or above. That’s the value of Wi-Fi 6E.
More bandwidth, greater performance
To everyday users and enterprises, Wi-Fi 6E will bring significant improvements, including in applications such as VR and AR. Today, AR/VR still often rely on cables; high-end headsets are tethered to a server/PC due to bandwidth and QoS demands. In fact, there are entire businesses focused on overhead cable management for VR headsets. But dedicated Wi-Fi 6E connections solve for this with more bandwidth, wider channels, and cleaner spectrum and most importantly true mobility (no cables).
6 GHz is also extremely important in any high-density environment such as large public venues, multi-tenant units, office buildings, etc. In these environments, you have large numbers of APs, and channel reuse becomes a significant challenge. With 6GHz, you have over 50 more 20Mhz channels allowing much more flexibility and reduced interference in channel planning. This is the advantage of Wi-Fi 6E: more bandwidth, greater performance, and elimination of slower technology devices, all combining to offer faster and more compelling user experiences.
When to expect Wi-Fi 6E
When will the gates come up to the 6 GHz on-ramp? The first hurdle is regulatory approval, which means the FCC in the U.S. We expect products available quickly following 6 GHz regulatory approvals and as mentioned above, Broadcom, a dominant player in Wi-Fi 6 on both the infrastructure (AP) and client side, has fully embraced this technology and I expect you will start to see early products based on these new chips later this year.
I know it’s a busy time for wireless technologies, but rest assured — Wi-Fi 6E is the real deal and it’s worth paying attention to. The average user will experience and appreciate the difference.