What is Wi-Fi 6E and unlicensed 6GHz spectrum?

Wi-Fi 6E setting toggle

In January 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new standard for upcoming wireless equipment known as Wi-Fi 6E. More recently on April 23, the Federal Communications Commission ratified unlicensed use of the 6GHz radio frequency spectrum in the USA, opening the door for the use of the Wi-Fi 6E standard.

Previously, the 6 GHz spectrum has been reserved for licensed use only, but this is now set to change. Unlicensed means that any device can use the spectrum, so long as they’re using it responsibly. This new unlicensed spectrum will predominantly be used by future Wi-Fi 6E devices, but carriers may also use it to boost their 5G networks. We should see our first consumer devices with a Wi-Fi 6E label around the end of 2020.

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What is Wi-Fi 6E?

In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax or AX Wi-Fi) but operating in the 6GHz spectrum. It’s simply an expansion of the existing standard. This means that it benefits from technologies like MU-MIMO congestion reduction, OFDMA and transmit beamforming to improve efficiency, and out-of-the-box support for the WPA3 security. But the main benefit of 6E is the addition of extra bandwidth and channel options.

Wi-Fi 6E using the 6GHz radio band for Wi-Fi opens up 1,200 MHz of extra bandwidth, a boon for high congestion areas such as public places. This bandwidth is split into 14 80MHz channels or seven 160MHz channels at once. Unlike existing Wi-Fi channels that are currently crammed into around just 400MHz of spectrum, 6E channels exist without overlap or interference. This should improve stability.

Although the spec itself isn’t any faster, the move to 6GHz with minimal interference should lead to improvements for network speeds, potentially in excess of 1 Gbps real-world speeds. Latency should also be lower due to no channel contention, with estimates down to just 1ms. Handy for AR/VR use cases or streaming 8K resolution content across your living room. However much like 5GHz, 6GHz spectrum is more range and obstacle limited than 2.4GHz. Although less congestion might help in this regard.

Wi Fi 6E features benefitsWi-Fi Alliance

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi 6E is backward compatible with existing Wi-Fi products and networks on 2.4 and 5GHz channels. It’s just that existing devices can’t use 6GHz spectrum. Making use of 6GHz Wi-Fi spectrum requires both a 6E labeled router and a smartphone or laptop.

The 6E standard has some trade-offs though, as it has to accommodate licensed 6GHz spectrum users too, such as carriers using it for sub-6 5G networks. The standard includes an Automated Frequency Control feature to prevent interference with licensed 6GHz users. It’s not clear yet how much of an impact this will have on the quality of unlicensed Wi-Fi connections.

How is Wi-Fi 6E different from Wi-Fi 6?

google nest wifi vs google wifi 1

6E is an expansion of the Wi-Fi 6 standard. Originally, Wi-Fi 6 supports connections over 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands. That’s what your current-gen Wi-Fi router, smartphones, laptops, and other wireless devices currently support. With Wi-Fi 6E at both ends, routers and consumer devices can operate over the additional 6GHz band.

Wi-Fi 6E is the same Wi-Fi 6 standard and features, but operating in the 6GHz spectrum.

Wi-Fi 6 devices didn’t support or make use of 6GHz because it’s a regulated frequency in most countries and requires regulatory approval for use. Hence why the FCC’s decision is so important, as it will allow devices with the new standard to operate in the spectrum unlicensed.

Really, the only difference between Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 6 is the addition of 6GHz spectrum support. Plus the added benefit of no legacy devices on the 6GHz band. So all devices will be speaking the same language and utilizing the latest and greatest Wi-Fi features.

Wi-Fi 6E devices

Wi-Fi 6E certified logo

Keep an eye out for this logo for certified 6E Wi-Fi devices.

The FCC announcement will spur development in first-gen devices, but we’re still a little ways out from a consumer launch. That said, chipset products are already available. Broadcom announced Wi-Fi 6E chipsets products for routers and access points during CES 2020. Intel is also working on its own system-on-a-chips that could be available towards the end of 2020 or early 2021.

The first devices, most likely routers, are expected to start supporting 6GHz Wi-Fi by the end of 2020. Consumer devices, such as smartphones, will have to wait for SoC support which won’t appear until 2021 at the earliest. At least in the US. Europe and other regions will have to wait for their regulators to free up the 6GHz spectrum too.