Throughout 2019 we heard a constant drumbeat about newer, faster, better wireless technologies. These included Wi-Fi 6, 5G, CBRS (privateLTE), LoRaWAN, and a plethora of IoT-focused technologies, all backed up with reams of documentation and test results demonstrating their value over their peers. Bottom line is this actually created more confusion than clarity and in many cases, the differentiation/advantages of one technology over others were at best subjective and at worst demonstratable only via expensive testing equipment. Not actually something the average user would experience. Additionally, it is commonly accepted that Wi-Fi is a given; it is not going anywhere as it is the default wireless technology for home, office, and public spaces. So adding a new wireless technology will not displace Wi-Fi, but instead will just require an additional wireless infrastructure to install, manage, secure, etc. Not something any administrator wants to deal with.
So accepting that Wi-Fi is and will remain the primary wireless technology and the latest version, Wi-Fi 6 offers huge improvements in efficiency over previous versions, what’s next? Earlier this week the Wi-Fi Alliance announced Wi-Fi 6E, the ability for Wi-Fi to leverage the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi operation, pending final FCC (and other international regulatory agencies) approval. Shortly after the Wi-Fi Alliance announcement, Broadcom became the first vendor to announce the availability of a full suite of 6 GHz Wi-Fi chips. Now I could discuss the technical advantages it offers and pontificate about new 20, 40, 80 & 160 MHz channels, the reductions in CCI or ACI problems (cleaner spectrum) and a greater ability to support high bandwidth applications like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), but instead let’s look at what it offers the typical user that just wants to watch a game, stream a movie or post some ridiculous video of themselves to their social media site.
Wi-Fi is 21 years old now and over the decades there have been continuous improvements in reliability, security, and performance, but with Wi-Fi 6 and 6GHz = Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi takes the next step forward. Forgetting the technology advantages let’s use an analogy to explain the advantages, driving down the highway. When Wi-Fi first appeared, think 11a/b/g, we were all on a one-lane road where a few slow vehicles could destroy your network’s aggregate throughput. As newer technologies emerged, 11n, 11ac and 11ax, we started to see improvements, like moving to a 3-lane interstate highway. 11n put us in the right-hand lane, and even though the speed limit said 65 mph, slower cars and contention still slow everyone down. Don’t believe me – check out the LA 405 at 7:30 in the morning. Next came 11ac and we moved into the center lane, theoretically a faster lane, but a couple of slowpokes once again quickly degrade overall performance. Finally, we reached 11ax/Wi-Fi 6 with the ability to support multi-user communication and enabling more than one client to talk at a time. We are in the left lane now, taking advantage of faster cars, carpool lanes, and priority lanes combining to offer a higher level of traffic efficiency. But once again those slowpokes and John Deere combine still get in your lane and degrade performance.
Now comes Wi-Fi 6E operating in the 6GHz band, so what? Imagine you’re driving in that left lane, still bumper to bumper. Off to the left, you see they are building a brand new highway with 4+ lanes of traffic and no one else is using it (ok, there are a few incumbents). Later this year they will start to offer an onramp to those new lanes and it’s not just more lanes (think channels), but also minimum requirements to access those lanes; no slow cars, no farm tractors, no scooters, only high-performance devices that we networking people call Wi-Fi 6 or above. This is the advantage of Wi-Fi 6E: more bandwidth, greater performance, and elimination of slower technology devices, all combining to offer a level of user experience even the person filming their avocado toast breakfast can appreciate.
Wi-Fi 6E, yeah it is a big deal and not just something explained in a 30-page whitepaper, but something the average user will actually experience and appreciate.