With the advent of 6 GHz Wi-Fi, I have been asked if the legacy frequency bands of 2.4 and 5 GHz are on the road to retirement. Will 6 GHz effectively be the death of the older bands? I will answer this question, but first, let's discuss the significance of various generations of Wi-Fi.
Recently, while talking with customers, partners, and colleagues, there still seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the recent and future generations of Wi-Fi technology. In fairness, this might directly result from what I sometimes refer to as "update fatigue," and I am sympathetic.
As opposed to cellular technology, where new generations debut on an average 10-year cycle, a new generation of Wi-Fi debuts every 4-5 years. This means that the entire Wi-Fi industry markets and sells to both consumers and the enterprise on the same timeline. So, I can understand why even enterprise businesses might sometimes be overwhelmed when they need to contemplate an infrastructure upgrade with the same cadence.
Do you remember your first Wi-Fi experience? My guess is that most people first began using Wi-Fi with the early generation of 802.11b technology with blazing speeds of 11 Mbps with only three 2.4 GHz channels available. Each generation of Wi-Fi offers new features and capabilities to enhance throughput, efficiency, latency, etc. However, in my mind, two major Wi-Fi inflection points align with two specific generations of Wi-Fi.
The first major Wi-Fi paradigm shift was the introduction of 802.11n technology in 2009. This 4th generation of Wi-Fi was significant because we transitioned from single-input, single-output (SISO) radios to multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) radios. A radio frequency phenomenon known as multipath went from being the enemy of Wi-Fi to being useful. This inflection point spawned much higher data rates, better data resiliency, and a better-quality Wi-Fi user experience. Across the globe, consumers and the enterprise embraced 802.11n technology because of all the true benefits that were delivered.
The second major Wi-Fi paradigm shift is happening right now with the growing availability of the 6 GHz frequency band. This generation is referred to as Wi-Fi 6E. As I have written in numerous blogs, Wi-Fi 6E brings us as much as 1,200 MHz of new spectrum in the 6 GHz band. This, my friends, is an enormous spectrum bonanza. To put this in perspective, the new 6 GHz spectrum available for Wi-Fi is more than double the usable channels of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels combined. So effectively, it triples the available unlicensed spectrum available for Wi-Fi.
Now back to the generational confusion. In August 2019, the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying 802.11ax technology in August 2019 with a new certification called Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6, also known as Wi-Fi 6 or the sixth generation. Wi-Fi 6 introduced 802.11ax efficiency enhancements to the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequency bands. Where the confusion really begins is with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E. In late 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced Wi-Fi 6E as an “extension” for certifying the 802.11ax features and capabilities of Wi-Fi 6 to the 6 GHz band. Wi-Fi 6E is the industry marketing name that identifies Wi-Fi devices that operate in 6 GHz.
So, where am I going with this discussion? I think many people view Wi-Fi 6E as a “minor update” of the 6th generation of Wi-Fi and do not understand the value. After all, Wi-Fi 6E was introduced just 16 months after Wi-Fi 6, so it must not be that big a deal. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, as I wrote earlier, Wi-Fi 6E is the second major Wi-Fi paradigm shift happening right now with the growing availability of the 6 GHz frequency band.
As I discussed in this video, I think we sometimes get too caught up with the new “bells and whistles” of various generations of Wi-Fi. It’s not always about features and updates, and the most significant thing happening in Wi-Fi right now is that it’s all about the 6 GHz spectrum. Wi-Fi 6 introduced some great new efficiency features, but the real value is when these new features prosper in 6 GHz.
Now let’s compare this to generations of smartphones. Every year, Samsung, Google, Apple, and other companies debut their latest generation of smartphones with much fanfare and hoopla. This week Apple announced the new iPhone 14, and much to the disappointment of many, the new smartphones do not yet have a 6 GHz radio for Wi-Fi. So why does the new iPhone 14 not have 6 GHz? I have heard a lot of speculation, but I can promise they will eventually join the 6 GHz party.
Wi-Fi 6E client devices with 6 GHz capabilities began to trickle into the marketplace in 2021. And according to Claus Hetting of Wi-Fi Now, we have recently seen an explosion of available Wi-Fi 6E client devices: “In particular, the number of PCs released with Wi-Fi 6E capability (633) has been impressive (both laptop and desktop versions). Currently, 61 smartphone models support Wi-Fi 6E.” In other words, 700+ client devices with 6 GHz radios from the likes of Google, Samsung, Dell, Lenovo, and many more.
I have had some recent conversations where large enterprise customers were considering a Wi-Fi technology refresh and purchasing Wi-Fi 6 APs instead of Wi-Fi 6 GHz APs. Wi-Fi 6 has some wonderful technology, but remember that a Wi-Fi 6E refresh brings you 6 GHz now and more importantly, future-proofs your wireless network.
So maybe (at least currently) we are getting too caught up in these generational names for Wi-Fi technology. Perhaps we should lead all conversations with the words, 6 GHz Wi-Fi, because the spectrum is the game-changer.
To add further confusion to this conversation, a lot of noise is already being made about the future generation of Wi-Fi 7, which is entirely dependent on 6 GHz. I will write about some of the potential Wi-Fi 7 features in future blogs. In the meantime, think of Wi-Fi 6E as the foundational generation of Wi-Fi that offers 6 GHz connectivity. Wi-Fi 7 will be the next generation that leverages 6 GHz. As a matter of fact, Wi-Fi 7, Wi-Fi 8, and other future generations of Wi-Fi will be built upon the 6 GHz spectrum foundation that has debuted with Wi-Fi 6E.
So back to the original question….. is 5 GHz Wi-Fi dead? Please understand that the legacy spectrum bands used for Wi-Fi are not going anywhere and are still purposeful. While 2.4 GHz has effectively become a best-effort band reserved for older wireless IoT devices and legacy Wi-Fi clients, 5 GHz will remain a premium band for many years ahead of us. Not to mention that 6 GHz Wi-Fi leverages the legacy bands for out-of-band AP discovery. Reports of the death of 5 GHz Wi-Fi have been greatly exaggerated. But 6 GHz is the future of Wi-Fi, and the future has arrived.
Wi-Fi has been around for over 20 years, and the technology continues to advance while remaining the primary method of wireless connectivity in our day-to-day lives. And over the next ten years, I expect all kinds of innovations for new wireless applications that will prosper in 6 GHz.