With 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) just beginning to roll out into the marketplace, and with the myriad of end-user benefits that come along with Wi-Fi 6, including an average 300% improvement in user density, not to mention the awesome iPhone 11 and Galaxy 10 smartphones that support 802.11ax, what could possibly be a hot new “superhighway” form of Wi-Fi in 2021?
What the Internet itself, wired Ethernet access, and Wi-Fi all have demonstrated for decades is that the wider and faster the traffic lanes become, and as more lanes are added, new applications, display technologies, and video technologies always advance to fill them up. With ax we get more efficient use of spectrum, we get narrower channels and therefore more of them, we get more simultaneous streams, we have sleep timers, and so much more. We can expect a 300–400% improvement in density. Wow – that is a tremendous advancement in one generation of technology. And yet, like an old TV game show, “but there’s more – you’ve won a new car!” – ax now has plans to get even better.
OK – not a new car, but – something of even higher value – more spectrum. The FCC is working with the Wi-Fi community to open up a ton of new spectrum in the 6GHz band. To be precise, 1200 MHz of new spectrum – which is 2X the amount available today. To be even more precise, a total of 59 additional 20 MHz–wide channels. Wow. In Europe, regulators are looking at making 500 MHz available, also a huge swath of spectrum. This spectrum has some old incumbents, but the usage here is very limited and generally geographically of low density. Rules changes by the FCC take time and are subject to lots of public input and industry lobbying efforts, not to mention technical analysis by the FCC’s engineering office and policy team. Caveats non-withstanding, there is the reason to believe that we will see new rules permitting the use of the 6GHz spectrum by 2021.
With Wi-Fi 6 already delivering many improvements in density versus prior Wi-Fi generations, you might be wondering what all of the fuss is about – how does this new spectrum benefit users? First of all, the 6 GHz frequency band utilization as envisioned by the Wi-Fi community will make available large contiguous blocks of spectrum. This will enable not just more overall spectrum for more channels, such as the fifty 20 MHz channels mentioned, but importantly, more contiguous spectrum wide enough to have fourteen 80 MHz and even many 160 MHz–wide channels. This, in turn, enables a variety of improvements and new use cases.
First, how about VR learning? Say Whaaat? I recently met a physician teaching at Harvard who is using 360-degree videos taken in remote villages in Chiapas demonstrating healthcare training for local village health promoters. Each of the video streams, even with H.264 compression, uses a ton of throughput. A full classroom of students can’t use the VR headsets at the same time. What if every classroom was using a hi-def 12-bit color video? The only solution is 6 GHz.
Let’s talk healthcare. With wide channels, multi-gigabit data rates will now be available to healthcare workers. Wouldn’t it be valuable to see a 3D CAT scan or MRI on a nice retina display tablet with your physician annotating your results or your family’s results right in front of you?
Next, let’s consider large public venues – train stations, subways, airports, crowded intersections, concert venues, soccer stadiums, football and baseball stadiums, etc. Notwithstanding the sparse number of incumbents in the 6 GHz band, with no legacy Wi–Fi incumbent devices in this new virgin spectrum, only post ax highly-modernized Wi-Fi 6 next-gen radios will be on the air. This will likely result in another 300% or more improvement in air capacity. This, in turn, will deliver a far better fan experience and enable more users to have live video connections from Times Square or the subway platform.
Now, as for the incumbent radios in the 6 GHz band, the FCC will put in place rules to protect these incumbents – most likely using an Automated Frequency Coordination algorithm. This general approach has been used by CBRS and should be somewhat simpler for 6 GHz Wi-Fi. Note, however, that putting this mechanism in place and managing the AFC database will take time. Anticipate that outdoor usage of 6 GHz will likely be 18 months or more behind the indoor use case.
So, we have discussed sports venues, public venues for smart cities and local governments, 360-degree VR for education, and mobile displays for healthcare – what about logistics? In this day and age, though a ton of freight moves by rail and truck, plenty of home deliveries make some portion of their journey by air. At all of the nation’s airports, the use of much of 5 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum is strictly prohibited and automatically disabled by both APs and clients to avoid interference with air traffic radar. Likewise, all buildings within a reasonable distance of an airport have a limited 5 GHz spectrum. By contrast, the 6 GHz spectrum has no such restriction. This entire segment of the economy will see a huge boost in Wi-Fi capabilities.
Mesh. . . . Mesh? Though we read about mesh networking in the home, and for sure it can make a difference, home mesh technology suffers from interference and collisions with a plethora of old Wi-Fi junk that burns up spectrum. With 6 GHz, we have available a virtual brand-new superhighway of spectrum. Moreover, for the typical home video camera, a 2 MHz channel is more than adequate. This means that the 59 20 MHz channels I mentioned earlier now become over 500 channels. By using some of the 80 MHz–wide channels as mesh links, a veritable bulletproof wireless home network will now be available to support as many video cameras as you’d like, as many wireless speakers, and so much more.
When you take your new iPhone-11 Pro Max to a new NFL stadium that is using Wi-Fi 6, you certainly will notice a much better Wi-Fi experience, including in many cases video replays only available in the stadium. An awesome Wi-Fi 6 use case. But as we enter the Wi-Fi Superhighway era, who knows what clever inventors around the world will do with this new spectrum. What we do know from the last 30 years of the Internet is that with every increase in available bandwidth, new gizmos, applications, displays, Facetime, and so much more has come along to give us another “must have” experience we never even imagined. The 6 GHz Wi-Fi SuperFI–way is surely destined to be just such a transformative leap in technology — opening a whole new world of use cases and density.