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If you’re in the market for a new router or any device that uses Wi-Fi, you should first understand the new Wi-Fi 6E standard and what it means for the future of wireless networks at home and in offices around the US.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, a group of Wi-Fi platform vendors that work with the FCC and electronics manufacturers to set standards for Wi-Fi technology, announced the Wi-Fi 6E designation in 2020 for any IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) products that support 6GHz wireless spectrum. Essentially, this means Wi-Fi 6E enables faster speeds and lower latencies than Wi-Fi 6 and earlier iterations.
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E
When the IEEE 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard was first announced, it was limited by law to a wireless spectrum that only covered the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Now, in a 2.4GHz band, you really have only three non-overlapping channels—and that bandwidth is shared by you, your family members, and your neighbors.
If you’ve ever had problems staying connected to a Zoom call or had the latest episode of The Mandalorian pause for buffering, spectrum congestion was probably the cause. If too many devices compete for bandwidth on the same wireless channel, then some of those signals will be dropped.
This isn’t just a matter of how many family members are connected to your home’s Wi-Fi network. Any other Wi-Fi network in range (such as the one beaming from your neighbor’s wireless router) is competing for bandwidth on the same limited number of channels.
In April of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to open up the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. With that policy change, significantly more airwaves are open that routers can use to broadcast Wi-Fi signals—and that’s a big deal.
The opening of the 6GHz band is the biggest spectrum addition to Wi-Fi since 1989. The jump from 5GHz to 6GHz might not sound like much, but it essentially quadruples the amount of airwaves (14 additional 80MHz channels, and seven additional 160MHz channels) available for routers and smart devices. That means less signal interference.
Bottom line: Early-adopter devices using Wi-Fi 6 (such as the first batch of Wi-Fi 6 routers) are limited to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum, while Wi-Fi 6E-compliant devices will have access to all those juicy 6GHz airwaves.
What Are the Benefits of Wi-Fi 6E?
The simplest reason that you’ll want Wi-Fi 6E? The 6GHz band allows for internet speeds of greater than 1Gbps. Not only that, but the increased spectrum means lower latency (less than one millisecond) for online games, video calls, or virtual computing sessions in which you need instantaneous response to keyboard commands, voices, or mouse clicks.
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Even with faster connectivity, you’ll probably only notice the advantages of Wi-Fi 6E when it comes to home network capacity—which is to say, in the form of less spectrum congestion. Whole-home gigabit coverage and multi-gigabit Wi-Fi capacity means normal homeowners can finally have the kind of next-generation computing experiences we’ve only seen at venues like vendor demos or at trade shows. Imagine virtual reality gaming anywhere in your house, or participating in augmented reality business presentations, all without any bandwidth drop due to other family members streaming Netflix or neighbors watching YouTube.
What’s the Catch?
There is usually a hidden “gotcha” with any new technology that sounds too good to be true. If Wi-Fi 6E has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that the 6GHz wireless spectrum uses shorter wavelengths. Short wavelengths are great for fast data transfers, but have a harder time traveling long distances, and they suffer greater interference from physical obstructions like dense walls or floors in a building.
Any real-world Wi-Fi 6E network will likely use both the 6GHz and 5GHz bands to deliver fast, reliable connections throughout a home or office building. It’s also entirely possible that future Wi-Fi 6E networks will use a combination of a main Wi-Fi 6E router and one or more Wi-Fi 6E repeaters to create a wireless mesh network that delivers the promised performance of Wi-Fi 6E even in large homes or office buildings with multiple obstructions.
Another potential issue for Wi-Fi 6E: The 6GHz spectrum in the US still has some existing licensed users, and Wi-Fi 6E networks will have to take steps to avoid interference outdoors. This won’t be a problem inside your home or office, but if you want to stay connected to your Wi-Fi network while you’re in the backyard, a Wi-Fi 6E router will use automated frequency control to prevent interference with other 6GHz band users.
In other words, your Wi-Fi performance will likely scale back to the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands when you’re outside.
How to Get Wi-Fi 6E
Now that you know Wi-Fi 6E is a must-have technology for the future, let’s talk about how you can get your hands on it now. Countries like the US, Brazil, and Korea have already opened up the 6GHz band, but many other countries have been slow to open their wireless spectrum for commercial use. As a result, most of the Wi-Fi 6E devices you’ll see today through the end of the year will be hardware marketed for US customers.
Wi-Fi 6E devices will be backward compatible with Wi-Fi 6 and earlier Wi-Fi standards, but in order to use the new 6GHz channels, you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6E router and a Wi-Fi 6E client device (meaning computers, phones, smart home devices, and other gadgets that support Wi-Fi 6E). That means even if you have a relatively new Wi-Fi 6 router, you’ll still need to upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6E model.
Routers like the Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500 promise to make a good foundation for a home Wi-Fi 6E network, but you won’t be able to use that cutting-edge speed without the next generation of devices that support Wi-Fi 6E. Apple’s iPhone 13 lineup is rumored to support the standard, but we’ll have to wait and see. Any new phone using Qualcomm’s FastConnect 6700 and FastConnect 6900 will be able to use the 6GHz band as well.
We should start seeing a few Intel-based laptops equipped with the Intel Wi-Fi 6E AX210 (Gig+) adapter in 2021, but most laptops we see in the first half of the new year will likely only support the Wi-Fi 6 standard.
Should You Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E?
The easy answer to this question for most people right now is no. Wi-Fi 6E routers are just starting to hit the market, and as with most new technologies, they carry a high early adopter fee. By this time next year, prices will likely come down considerably, and there will be a lot more Wi-Fi 6E-compatible devices you can connect to your router.
Additionally, Wi-Fi 6E won’t help you all that much outdoors, so if you’re looking to expand your work-from-home capabilities to your backyard, you’ll likely be better served by a mesh network than a Wi-Fi 6E router.
That said, if you’re in the market for a new router, you want something future-proof, and you don’t mind paying a premium, then by all means, consider a Wi-Fi 6E model. Everyone else can wait at least until next year before thinking about upgrading.
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