This past April, the FCC adopted new rules for the 6GHz band (5.925GHz – 7.125GHz), freeing up 1,200MHz of spectrum for unlicensed use. This new amount of spectrum was dubbed Wi-Fi 6E by the Wi-Fi Alliance in January to establish a common industry name to identify devices that will be able to use the 6GHz allocation.
While the Wi-Fi industry has continued to expand and innovate since the inception of 802.11b, this spectrum addition, which more than doubles the amount of previously existing channels, is set to become the biggest innovation driver in wireless today.
The most obvious benefit to 6E is the sheer number of extra channels that are gained (a whopping 59) when using a 20MHz channel width. As Wi-Fi continues to become more pervasive, Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine to Machine (M2M) technologies continue to garner further adoption and end users have more devices connecting to Wi-Fi, interference becomes much more of an issue, especially in dense urban environments. With more channels to spread across, it will be less likely that end devices will have to contend with other stations on the same channel. Another upshot of more channels is the ability to design denser wireless environments with less fear of co-channel interference impacting airtime, making it easier for businesses to pursue “wireless first” or “wireless only” design models.
Extra channels also provide the traditional mechanism for faster speeds. These fast speeds come from increasing the channel width, which also increases the amount of data that can be sent at one time. In today’s world, we often deploy with 20MHz or 40MHz channels without much issue, but increasing to 80MHz or 160MHz (allowed in 802.11ac and beyond) results in a smaller non-overlapping channel set and a much higher likelihood of having to deal with co-channel interference again. It’s very likely that 6E will move our “new norm” to 40MHz/80MHz widths (depending on environment), giving wireless networks an instant speed boost.
Many people in the industry are even speculating that in some cases when 160MHz can be used without great impact, devices such as VR/AR headsets that use bandwidth-guzzling high-definition video could thrive. Responsibly used, wider channels could also greatly benefit outdoor point-to-point and mesh links due to higher throughput backhaul.
As with most new standards, adopting the latest and greatest isn’t always a free ride. There are several factors to start thinking about while planning the eventual adoption of new technology.
While they will share the same 802.11ax standard design, WiFi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are not the same animal. Due to design considerations like RF filtering, which is typically built into the hardware of an access point (AP), the 6GHz spectrum is most likely not going to be usable by your existing Wi-Fi 6 radios. For most vendors, this will mean another refresh of hardware that is 6GHz capable.
At the time this is being written, most vendors are still figuring out the configuration for their first 6E AP to market. Building on top of 802.11ax, there is a possibility that we will see models with tri-band radios using power-hungry 4×4:4 or 8×8:8 configurations. While we don’t know what will become industry standard, it’s safe to say it’s worth looking at switchport power budgeting if you haven’t already done so in a migration to Wi-Fi 6. The 802.11at PoE standard is going to be the barrier to entry with likelihood that some APs won’t function with all features unless 802.11bt PoE can be provided.
Depending on channel width, spatial streams and matching client capability it is also possible that regularly breaking the 1-Gig traffic barrier could happen. This is not often seen today but the added spectrum threatening the use of wider channels could push that closer to reality. Network owners with use cases like ultra-high throughput video should consider if their infrastructure can also support multi-Gigabit Ethernet to accommodate this.
One thing that has remained true with Wi-Fi over the years is that clients really run the show. There are many ways to consider that statement, but I’ll focus on adoption here. The traditional cycle seen with standards migrations is usually vendors leading with the new standard in the AP and end-user devices following shortly after. Often, mobile device proliferation was a good marker of when a new standard would really be widely adopted, for instance when companies like Apple and Samsung started putting Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) chips in their phones, network bandwidth consumption rose slowly as more and more of these devices appeared. For many organizations this critical mass served as a decent marker to indicate necessary upgrades. Still, for the early adopters of Wi-Fi 5, there were advantages to updating such as APs with more radios, new models with features like dual 5GHz radios and additional spatial streams. However, to truly harness the new standard client devices also needed to be upgraded.
Wi-Fi 6E is set up to have a similar pattern with one big exception, old clients will not be able to take advantage of any of the 6GHz channels by way of firmware upgrades. This means Wi-Fi 6E device proliferation is going to be a necessity to begin use of the new standard and spectrum. If prior patterns repeat themselves, mobile devices will be the first to adopt, but embedded and integrated chips in things like IoT devices will be slow to follow. For a time, this will likely create an interesting situation for the network owner, and it will be crucial to understand the capabilities of each of their supported devices and how the RF network should be redesigned to take advantage of 6E where possible.
One example might be that a business with mixed office and warehouse space could possibly take advantage of 6E on the office side with laptops and phones but not in the warehouse side with hand scanners, and voice picking software. If the desire in this scenario would be to move the office to “6E only” channels, the group responsible for purchasing network equipment would likely need to strategize to create a replacement plan for old hardware and ensure any new hardware going forward supported 6E. Considering client device purchasing cycles in parallel with infrastructure upgrades is a good idea to ensure new capabilities in the network are being utilized.
Should I Plan Now or Wait?
There will almost always be the next greatest thing in Wi-Fi, so it can be hard to determine when the time is right to upgrade. While Wi-Fi 6E is going to bring lots of fantastic benefits, at the time of this post it’s just too far out to warrant pumping the breaks on any upgrade plans today. While features look fairly locked in at this point (including the WiFi Alliance certification program), Wi-Fi 6 itself still does not have IEEE workgroup approval according to the 802.11 timelines document, showing that the standard 6E will be built on is still fairly new and technically not yet complete.
The first 6E chips are expected late 2020 with manufacturer development cycles to follow, which means more time until there is stable and functional product on the market. While keeping an eye on the 6E horizon, now is the time to move to Wi-Fi 6 or at the very least time to evaluate readiness in terms of power, cabling, underlying infrastructure and perhaps even RF design. While the propagation of 6GHz is going to be similar to 5GHz, it could also be wise to redo the RF design if the network was designed based on an old standard. With these supporting items resolved, the migration to Wi-Fi6 today and Wi-Fi 6E later will be a much smoother transition for your business.