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What do the 6 GHz band and Wi-Fi 6E mean for wireless networking?

The FCC is expected to approve the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi, which should improve speed and capacity for wireless networks. But make sure your devices can use the 6 GHz band.

The Wi-Fi world has just started to transition to the new wireless standard, 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6. But the original impressive promise of the standard is now starting to be dwarfed by another development.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appears on track to make even more spectrum available for Wi-Fi, using a frequency range where Wi-Fi has never played before. The implications are significant.

To date, all 802.11 Wi-Fi standards have been relegated to 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz or both ranges. Every new standard promises huge speed gains versus the last standard, but the biggest speed gains come from bonding smaller channels to make wider ones. This reduces the number of available channels in already tight spectrum, so many network administrators stick to more narrow channels, all the way through Wi-Fi 6.

Here comes 6 GHz Wi-Fi, maybe

With the expected addition of a wide swath of frequency in 6 GHz, the FCC will make the dream of wider channels a reality in high-density Wi-Fi environments. The Wi-Fi Alliance is already marketing the new frequencies as Wi-Fi 6E, and it will use the same technical underpinnings as 802.11ax. Remember: The FCC makes the spectrum rules, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers provides the actual standards, and the Wi-Fi Alliance does marketing and such.

So, what does Wi-Fi 6E mean to end users and those who build wireless networks? It should be a true leap forward in both speed and capacity -- if deployed correctly. But we should remember that Wi-Fi devices are radios, and if your devices are not equipped for a given band, then using that band is impossible.

We'll have to wait for the FCC to open the expected floodgates on the spectrum and then wait for both wireless LAN vendors and user device manufacturers to catch up.

This development of 6 GHz Wi-Fi 6E is truly big news, with still a lot to digest.

This was last published in March 2020

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