Impact of 6 GHz on the Future of Wi-Fi

Rowell Dionicio

It felt like only yesterday we were just able to use Wi-Fi 6. Many of us have planned migrations and upgrades from Wi-Fi 5 access points (APs). And now, there’s a new term in town supporting 6 GHz called Wi-Fi 6E.

On January 3rd, 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced Wi-Fi 6E to distinguish devices capable of operating in the 6 GHz band. Soon after that, the FCC announced to open the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use on April 23rd, 2020. A total of 1200 MHz of spectrum, 5.925 – 7.125 GHz, will be the most significant improvement to Wi-Fi in several years.

Currently, incumbent services operate in the 6 GHz band, but the FCC announcement enhances several Wi-Fi use cases. The FCC will impose rules such as transmit power limitations and frequency operation alongside incumbent services.

Wi-Fi has had explosive growth as we saw billions of devices utilizing wireless connectivity. The use cases for additional frequency include

  • Low latency applications
  • Higher throughput
  • 4K or higher video
  • Augmented reality
  • Virtual reality
  • Broadband across rural and underserved areas

Research and testing led by Aruba helped the industry bring us towards the arrival of 6 GHz or Wi-Fi 6E. Aruba presented a 6 GHz capability with a demo of an access point prototype during Networking Field Day 25. Chuck Lukaszewski and Prateek Patni of Aruba show us the possibilities.

Prateek Patni giving a demo during Networking Field Day 25

What’s the impact?

Wi-Fi 6E will have a dramatic impact on how we will use Wi-Fi. Today, we have 25 non-overlapping channels (20 MHz wide) in the 5 GHz band. We’re limited by co-channel interference when we increase the channel width.

In Wi-Fi 6E, the 20 MHz wide channels increase to 59. With 40 MHz wide channels, there will be 29 non-overlapping channels and 14 non-overlapping 80 MHz wide channels. Compare this to the 5 GHz band’s six non-overlapping 80 MHz wide channels.

By leveraging wider channels, we will begin to realize higher throughput. Aruba’s demo with a single 6 GHz-capable client measured 1.25 Gbps on an 80 MHz wide channel! Each on 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz, Aruba measured 2.2 Gbps throughput across three bands with three clients.

These metrics are outstanding; there’s no doubt about that. We must acknowledge the test was performed in an isolated lab environment. There is no data to speak to a real-world deployment. But we believe the impact will be seen in Greenfield deployments, using 6 GHz capable APs and devices.

Wi-Fi 6E devices will utilize a nearly interference-free spectrum, leaving behind the issues that plague our Wi-Fi networks today.

Wi-Fi 6E will require deploying new APs along with client devices supporting the new frequency band. We’re still years away from seeing mainstream usage.

We will most likely see vendors release tri-band APs, supporting 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz. Subsequently, the switching infrastructure will need upgrading to multi-gig ports and higher PoE standards.

What doesn’t change?

Planning will be critical. Scrutinize upgrade cycles and budgets. Wi-Fi 6E will not fix poor Wi-Fi decisions in AP and antenna placements. Additionally, it will not replace a Wi-Fi design. 

To take advantage of the effectiveness and performance of Wi-Fi 6E, test the APs with capable devices before a mass rollout. Consider adding a Wi-Fi design phase to develop an accurate bill of materials along with a report of the Wi-Fi deployment. 

Stick to your standard upgrade cycle but beginning planning for Wi-Fi 6E soon. Consider a major leap to 6 GHz if the business use cases require it.

What’s the timeline?

Vendors are testing their Wi-Fi 6E products today. Aruba recently showed their proof-of-concept AP at Networking Field Day 25. On January 8th, 2020, 6 GHz radios were announced. We may see the first 6 GHz APs ship at the end of 2021. 

Intel has a Wi-Fi 6E chip available for purchase – the AX210.

On May 19th, 2021, Canada decided to open the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E.

The 6 GHz movement is full steam ahead.

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