Wi-Fi 6: Not a Moment Too Soon

Article By : Don Scansen

The Wi-Fi Alliance officially announced their certification for Wi-Fi 6E. Over 300 million Wi-Fi 6E enabled devices are expected to ship this year...

There has never been a year quite like 2020. The new work-, study-, and play-at-home lifestyle for many meant increased dependence on Wi-Fi. The networks we leaned on were also run by householders, so many of us who field questions about internet speeds in our homes bore the brunt of the complaints of users — Zoomers, gamers, YouTubers, and Netflix fanatics alike. For us, Wi-Fi 6E couldn’t come soon enough.

Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6 is getting a seemingly innocuous but profoundly useful extension.

We have all experienced problems with crowding on Wi-Fi, either from the density of competing nearby networks, the demand of a high number of connected devices on our own networks, or both. Yes, 2020 was a year like no other except that at least a good portion of 2021 may end up looking quite similar. Improvement to Wi-Fi systems is welcome news.

Last week, there was just that as the Wi-Fi Alliance officially announced their certification for Wi-Fi 6E. The consortium of companies standardizing and promoting Wi-Fi created a more streamlined labeling of the generations by replacing the 802.11 series with a single number. 802.11ax became Wi-Fi 6. Older technologies were given the same treatment as 802.11ac became known as Wi-Fi 5. Seth Colaner at VentureBeat referred to it as, “the mercifully spartan moniker.”

Wi-Fi 6 was introduced some time ago and rolled out several important improvements including:

  • Orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) to reduce latency for both uplink and downlink traffic in high demand environments
  • Multi-user multiple input, multiple output (multi-user MIMO) to increase downlink data transfer and connect more devices concurrently
  • Target wake time (TWT) for better network efficiency and improved battery life
  • 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM) to encode more data
  • Transmit beamforming for higher data rates

Wi-Fi 6E features and benefits

Wi-Fi 6 also enabled the 6 GHz band. Devices operating under this earlier standard provided a single 160 MHz wide channel in the 6 GHz band.

The “E” in Wi-Fi 6E is for extended. In other words, the rest of the 802.11ax protocols are extended further into the 6 GHz spectrum with the addition of six more 160 MHz channels.

At first glance, the rather mild addition of the “extended” descriptor for Wi-Fi 6E suggests that not much is going in here. But the performance we depend on usually comes down to bandwidth. Wi-Fi 6E expands the high bandwidth 6 GHz by a factor of seven. In terms of the protocols, the evolution was in the transition to Wi-Fi 6. The access to pure bandwidth happens now as adoption of Wi-Fi 6E begins.

Kevin Robinson from the Wi-Fi Alliance took some time to help me get my head around the new announcement. Kevin made a few strong points about the speed of this regulatory approval and standard adoption cycle.

Over 300 million Wi-Fi 6E enabled devices are expected to ship this year. According to Robinson, the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) was “visionary” to see the potential in granting Wi-Fi access to the new 6 GHz spectrum. The Wi-Fi Alliance is proud of their work and that of the member companies, and Robinson noted their success in ensuring co-existence in shared spectrum. Examples of existing networks that Wi-Fi 6E needs to play nice with include fixed point-to-point wireless and remote television feeds.

The regulatory process and rapid product introduction are networking’s equivalent of Operation Warp Speed.  Covid-19 vaccine development was cranked up to protect our physical health, but better networks might just be what the doctor ordered for mental health.

Wi-Fi 6E Expands into 6 GHz Band (YouTube)

And Wi-Fi networks might do a lot more than that. The Wi-Fi Alliance posted a blog by Dr. Raul Katzdescribing a few interesting points about how Wi-Fi improves our resilience in the face of a pandemic. One point is a paper that suggests that countries with well developed digital infrastructure see negative long-term economic impacts of pandemics at half the rate of other countries.

The gist of the announcement about Wi-Fi 6E is the certification program. It may not require much imagination to realize how important certification is for an evolving standard covering many generations of implementations spanning different bands, maintaining network security against intrusions, all the while ensuring interoperability of new devices with old networks (and vice versa) and coexistence with other networks in shared frequency bands. I’m glad I only have to write about it.

Here is the official statement from Robinson:

“Wi-Fi Alliance certification for Wi-Fi 6E is now available to deliver for users the tremendous benefits of Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band as global momentum accelerates. Wi-Fi 6E certification is an essential ingredient in the success of Wi-Fi 6E, and helps promote worldwide innovation and a diverse, secure device ecosystem. Wi-Fi 6E uses expansive 6 GHz spectrum supporting up to seven super-wide 160 MHz channels to deliver multigigabit, low latency Wi-Fi to users in both home and enterprise environments. Wi-Fi 6E shines by delivering high performance and low latency for AR/VR, industrial IoT, congested home networks, or high-capacity enterprise networks in dense environments like transportation hubs and stadiums. Wi-Fi Alliance expects strong Wi-Fi 6E momentum with more than 300 million Wi-Fi 6E devices entering the market in 2021.”

The first new devices entering the market are phones, tablets, and PCs. As that ramp continues, we can expect televisions and artificial reality headset introductions by mid-2021.

Any new round of Wi-Fi certification includes the latest security. For Wi-Fi 6E, we now have WPA3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 3). Network security is becoming more of a concern to a wide range of users out there, and new security features will help drive adoption of the new standard.

Wi-Fi 6E is something different compared to earlier standards and their interoperability needs. The new protocol offers a clean break from legacy technology because of the expansion to a new frequency band. Wi-Fi 6E does not need to be backward compatible with earlier standards. That should limit vulnerabilities even more.

While many of us suffer with congested legacy networks at home, there are much more demanding environments that present the main use cases for Wi-Fi 6E. For example, consider advanced video applications especially in extremely dense environments like stadiums. These days, it might feel like a crowd at home, but it isn’t exactly a football game.

As Robinson noted, the return to stadiums and concert halls is aspirational at this point, but if we ever do return, Wi-Fi 6E will provide a much-improved experience for live sports and music fans alike. At least it will if we ever get back to those venues.

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