Doubling Wi-Fi’s usable spectrum is a simpler fix than tacking on new protocols.

Black-and-white logo proclaims Wi-Fi 6 Certified.


On Friday, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new branding for the expansion of Wi-Fi into an additional 1200MHz of unlicensed spectrum.

Dubbed “Wi-Fi 6E,” the new spectrum should be made available for general Wi-Fi device use shortly; the US Federal Communications Commission proposed expansion of Wi-Fi into 6GHz spectrum in October 2018, and FCC chairman and novelty-coffee-mug aficionado Ajit Pai expressed a desire for the agency to “move quickly” (no concrete decision timeline was given) in opening up the spectrum to Wi-Fi at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference in September 2019.

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6E is the Wi-Fi alliance’s branding for accessing the proposed new 6GHz spectrum using the existing Wi-Fi 6 protocol, otherwise known as 802.11ax. The new spectrum is right next door to the 5GHz unlicensed spectrum we’ve all been using since 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4). That means its RF characteristics are close enough to what we’re already accustomed to to require no further explanation: it’ll act just like 5GHz networking already does, for the most part.

What the new spectrum does is allow for much denser device-deployment strategies, by opening up the number of Wi-Fi “channels” which can be presented in one space without overlapping (and therefore congesting) with one another. The additional 1200MHz can be divided into fourteen 80MHz-wide non-overlapping channels, or seven 160MHz-wide non-overlapping channels. Enterprise deployments could use the spectrum to allow much higher data-transfer rates to hundreds of devices all located near one another.

What would Wi-Fi 6E be good for?

The new spectrum would also be a potential large boon for consumer Wi-Fi mesh deployments—the great thing about Wi-Fi mesh is you don’t have to run any wires; but the crappy thing about Wi-Fi mesh is that you didn’t run any wires. When your mesh nodes have to talk to one another on the same channels that Wi-Fi devices already use to talk to them, latency goes up while speed and consistency go down.

The best Wi-Fi mesh kits already use three individual radios—one 2.4GHz for legacy devices: one 5GHz for modern design devices, and one 5GHz for backhaul. Unfortunately, this is generally enough for a single moderately-sized wireless LAN to effectively blanket the entire available Wi-Fi spectrum, all by itself. In very dense environments like apartment complexes, if any 5GHz neighbor networks are “audible,” it may not be possible to set up a completely congestion-free network using only the existing, non-DFS allocated spectrum.

Without expanding either into the new 6GHz spectrum or into DFS (which doesn’t work well in most urban areas), most users can realistically expect only two workable 5GHz, 80MHz, or 160MHz channels: one on the high band (above DFS frequencies), and one on the low band. In theory, the existing 5GHz spectrum can be divided into as many five non-overlapping, non-DFS 80MHz channels—but in practice, 160MHz deployments and the use of interstitial channels tend to make only one channel on each band viable, in spaces without tight RF controls.

If Wi-Fi gear is allowed to utilize another 1200MHz of contiguous spectrum, that suddenly makes it possible to have extremely high-bandwidth (and therefore throughput) backhaul and fronthaul links available. Due to the rapid attenuation and blocking of 5GHz and 6GHz signals, the vast majority of physical spaces should then realistically have access to uncongested airtime in enough spectrum to come far, far closer to the kind of network quality one only expects in wired-backhaul commercial-style access points (such as Ubiquiti UAP, or TP-Link EAP) today.

Will you be able to use Wi-Fi 6E?

Decisions made by the US Federal Communications Commission are, obviously, only directly relevant to US users. But European users should see some additional spectrum opened for their use as well, though probably not the full 1200MHz proposed by the FCC.

It’s unclear at this time whether existing Wi-Fi 6 hardware will be able to access the new spectrum once approved. In terms of physical design, existing hardware is more than likely OK—the antenna design to transmit and receive 5GHz should also work well at 6GHz. But there are serious questions about both how much is possible in firmware upgrades to existing Wi-Fi devices, and in how willing manufacturers will be to add this capability via free firmware upgrade rather than convincing consumers to buy a new gadget. We don’t think vendors would be thrilled to give the capability away for free, so expect most to only implement it in new device designs.

With that said, we expect just having the new spectrum available to make an enormous difference in how well consumer Wi-Fi mesh networks can scale and provide high-quality Wi-Fi—even if the devices themselves don’t support it. And very little guesswork or testing is needed in order to make this prediction—”more airtime, available over more spectrum” is much, much simpler to implement than radically new protocol features like Wi-Fi 6’s OFDMA.

In theory, even Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) would work in the new spectrum—but in practice, don’t expect manufacturers to be interested in moving what’s rapidly becoming a legacy protocol into the new spectrum.