6 GHz Wi-Fi is Coming, But Wired Fiber Optic is Still Superior

Adapted from an article by Jacob Kastrenakes, Apr 23, 2020 | Original The Verge article here.


In a few months, there’s going to be a lot more Wi-Fi to go around. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open up a plot of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use — the same regulatory go-ahead that lets your router broadcast over the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. That means there are now more open airwaves — a lot more — that routers can use to broadcast Wi-Fi signals. Once the new spectrum is officially opened for business later this year, that should translate to faster, more reliable connections from the next generation of devices.

This is the largest spectrum addition since the FCC cleared the way for Wi-Fi in 1989, so it’s a huge deal. The new spectrum basically quadruples the amount of space available for routers and other devices, so it will mean a lot more bandwidth and a lot less interference for any device that can take advantage of it.

“This is the most monumental decision around Wi-Fi spectrum in its history, in the 20 years we’ve been around,” Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry-backed group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi, said ahead of the vote.

Devices are expected to start supporting 6GHz Wi-Fi by the end of 2020, so its implementation isn’t far away. When it arrives, expect to see it branded under the name “Wi-Fi 6E.”

Here’s what we know so far about what to expect.

Will 6 GHz Wi-Fi Improve My Bad Wi-Fi?

If you’ve ever had trouble connecting to your Wi-Fi network, there’s a good chance spectrum congestion was the problem. The best choice, bar far is to just jettison all Wi-Fi and just use the tried and true, faster, more secure, more reliable option — wired Ethernet cables.

Whenever you have too many wireless devices trying to connect over the same band of frequencies, some devices will start to get dropped . . . so use Ethernet and your problems is solved. If you see a long list of nearby Wi-Fi networks in your area, that is a reason why your connection is getting slower and less reliable. It is also the data that can convince you and others to save you money, permanently turn off these inefficient wireless routers and rely solely on energy-efficient wired Ethernet access.

6GHz Wi-Fi can go a will add more wireless data through the air. It offers not just a new swath of airwaves for routers to use, but a spacious swath that doesn’t require overlapping signals like on some current Wi-Fi channels. The new spectrum has enough room for up to seven maximum-capacity Wi-Fi streams to all be broadcast simultaneously and not interfere with each other — all without using any of the previously available spectrum.

To get a little more specific, the FCC is opening up 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band. For the past two decades, Wi-Fi has been operating with roughly 400MHz of spectrum, and all available channels had to be split up within that limited space. Channels on the 6GHz band are expected to be 160MHz each in size. Only two channels at that size could fit inside the currently available airspace.

What is 6 GHz Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi works by broadcasting over airwaves that are open for anyone to use. Today, it’s working over two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Now, we’re adding a third band, 6GHz, quadrupling the space available to traditional Wi-Fi.

The numbers make a difference (2.4GHz travels farther, but 6GHz delivers data faster), what also matters is how large a swath of airwaves is available. And that’s why 6GHz is delivering: this new band quadruples the total bandwidth available to traditional Wi-Fi.

On an immediate level, it means that if you’re the first person in your apartment building to get a 6GHz router, you’re going to be living large as far as connectivity goes because no one will be competing with you. But even once 6GHz routers become more common, several years from now, the hope is that the more spacious spectrum will allow for signals to remain faster and stronger than the ones we use today. “We will not be in the same position we are today five years from now,” Robinson said.

Will This Make Wi-Fi Faster? Sort of . . .

Technically, 6GHz Wi-Fi has the same theoretical top speed as 5GHz Wi-Fi: 9,600 Mbps Gbps, the current version of Wi-Fi, but no one achieves these speeds in practice. Frankly, 100 Mbps upload and download speeds are more than sufficient for internet connections. Fiber optic to the home delivers around 1,000 Mbps and achieve speeds of 500-600 Mbps on internal Ethernet wiring. No one is actually getting speeds any higher than this from Wireless at 5GHz today.

At 6GHz, it’s assumed that routers will broadcast at the current maximum allowable channel size, meaning a faster connection. Wi-Fi connections to smartphones could hit 250-500 Gbps on these new wireless networks, Robinson said. Of course, your speeds will still be limited by what your home internet provider offers – which varies from 25 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps.

Related: Wi-Fi 6: is it really that much faster?


What makes Wi-Fi 6 faster?

There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.

MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 upgrades it.

The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then the next, and the next. Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. Wi-Fi 6 will allow devices to communicate with up to eight.

You can think of adding MU-MIMO connections like adding delivery trucks to a fleet, says Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an internationally backed tech-industry group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi. “You can send each of those trucks in different directions to different customers,” Robinson says. “Before, you had four trucks to fill with goods and send to four customers. With Wi-Fi 6, you now have eight trucks.”

The other new technology, OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.

Extending the truck metaphor, Robinson says that OFDMA essentially allows one truck to carry goods to be delivered to multiple locations. “With OFDMA, the network can look at a truck, see ‘I’m only allocating 75 percent of that truck and this other customer is kind of on the way,’” and then fill up that remaining space with a delivery for the second customer, he says.

In practice, this is all used to get more out of every transmission that carries a Wi-Fi signal from a router to your device.

When can I expect Wi-Fi 6 devices in stores?

The first wave of devices using 6GHz Wi-Fi is expected in the final quarter of 2020, according to Robinson. But deployment should really kick off in early 2021 when the Wi-Fi Alliance begins offering a certifications program for Wi-Fi 6E devices.

Manufacturers have been preparing for this moment. Already, the chipmaker Broadcom has announced a Wi-Fi 6E mobile chip. Qualcomm has said that it’s ready to support 6GHz Wi-Fi in next-gen wireless products. And Intel said it’ll have chips ready for January 2021.

Two major router companies, Linksys and Netgear, have signaled that they’re on board. And Apple previously said the FCC’s approval “sets the course for the next generation of Wi-Fi networks.”

Smartphones are likely to be the first consumer devices to adopt Wi-Fi 6E, Phil Solis, a wireless analyst with IDC, told The Verge. Solis predicts 316 million devices will ship with Wi-Fi 6E support in 2021. After smartphones, he expects tablets to follow, with adoption in TVs likely in 2022.

How will I know if a device supports Wi-Fi 6E?

Right now, when you go to buy a new phone or laptop, you might see the label “Wi-Fi 6” on the box. That’s great for now since it means your device supports the latest Wi-Fi standard.

But “Wi-Fi 6” means your device is still operating on the same old spectrum, so starting later this year, you’ll want to start looking for the label “Wi-Fi 6E.” which stands for “Wi-Fi 6 extended into the 6GHz band.” It’s the (relatively) consumer-friendly name you’ll see on phones, laptops, routers, and other gadgets that support 6GHz Wi-Fi.

All Wi-Fi 6E devices should be compatible with one another and backward compatible with whatever router you already have at home. The important thing to know, though, is that you won’t see the 6GHz benefits until you buy a Wi-Fi 6E router. Chances are, those will be some of the first products to hit the market.

What’s the catch?

There are a many catches!

The big one is … companies actually have to follow through! All of the signs suggest they will, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has tried to point companies toward other forms of Wi-Fi before — like speedy WiGig or low-power HaLow — that haven’t panned out. (Robinson said that’s not what’s happening this time. “6 GHz will become an integral part of Wi-Fi 6 and future generations of Wi-Fi,” he said.)

Other countries still have to approve unlicensed 6 GHz use. Assuming this all does work out, you’ll still have to replace your devices to get the benefit. Current gadgets aren’t set up to use 6 GHz networks (it’s largely been illegal to broadcast, after all), so you won’t see the benefits until you buy a new router and a new phone, laptop, or other Wi-Fi-enabled device that can connect to it.

Wi-Fi 6E devices will still be backward compatible with all old Wi-Fi devices, but those gadgets largely won’t get the benefit of the upgrade. They’ll still be stuck using whatever version of Wi-Fi they shipped on. At least under the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification program, the 6GHz network will be reserved for more efficient Wi-Fi 6 devices.

Also, airwaves are overseen country by country. The FCC is opening up 6GHz in the US, but people in Europe still have to wait on individual countries and the European Commission to do the same for them. It could happen later this year, but there’s no promise of that. That means regulatory issues could delay availability of this tech in some countries. Many gadgets are shipped globally, too, so it could also slow down overall adoption if major markets fall behind.

The 6 GHz spectrum also has some existing licensed users, and Wi-Fi will have to work around them. Indoors, that’s not expected to present an issue, since your walls should prevent interference. But outdoors, Wi-Fi 6E routers will need to make use of something called an “automated frequency control” system to ensure they don’t interfere with existing 6 GHz users. That means less space to broadcast, which could degrade overall performance.

What does this have to do with 5G?

Nothing. Here’s the deal: technically, the FCC didn’t open up new “Wi-Fi spectrum.” It opened up new “unlicensed” spectrum, which is roughly what it sounds like. It means that you don’t need a license to use it, so anyone can use it as long as they do so responsibly.

That means other wireless devices and infrastructure could make use of the 6 GHz band, potentially taking up space Wi-Fi wants to use. And yes, 5G is one of those things. Cell carriers have in the past used unlicensed spectrum to augment the licensed spectrum that makes up the core of their wireless networks.

They did this with LTE as one of many technologies meant to speed up connections. From the looks of things, it’s possible they’ll do that again by letting 5G overlap on the newly cleared spectrum with Wi-Fi 6.

Will this lead to interference issues? Will 5G come to dominate all global connectivity and totally replace Wi-Fi? Probably not, but it’s too early to say. The two standards aren’t necessarily in contention, though, so it’s not like one has to be the winner or loser here.

“There’s so much spectrum in the 6GHz band that there should be room for both,” Solis said. Cellular use of 6GHz would be similar to Wi-Fi use, in factories or small cell sites, he said. “You’re not gonna see macrocells using 6GHz.”