Wi-Fi 6E has definitely been in the spotlight over the past couple of months. But does the technology live up to the hype? How and when can your organization actually benefit from it? Let’s take a closer look!
Since Wi-Fi was first released to consumers in 1997, the consecutive technology standards or generations have been continually evolving. From the most recent history, the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying 802.11ax technology in August 2019, with a new certification called Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6. In late 2020, the very same organization announced Wi-Fi 6E as an extension of Wi-Fi 6.
We get it. 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), and now Wi-Fi 6E… Sure, Wi-Fi innovation timeline has always been rather fast, especially when compared to other wireless technologies. So it’s fair to wonder: does this upgrade cycle ever end? Well, truth be told, it doesn’t end – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! With each new generation of Wi-Fi over the last nearly quarter of a century, we have witnessed substantial gains in wireless performance, connectivity, and user experience.
What’s really important here though, is the fact that Wi-Fi 6E is not just another technology upgrade. Instead, it should rather be considered as a spectrum upgrade.
OK, so what Wi-Fi 6E really is (and what it isn’t)?
First of all, Wi-Fi 6E may be part of Wi-Fi 6, but it’s not the same as Wi-Fi 6. The latter corresponds to the 802.11ax wireless communication standard. This standard covers the two well-established frequency bands for Wi-Fi: 2.4 and 5 GHz. Wi-Fi 6E offers the same features and capabilities as Wi-Fi 6, including higher performance, lower latency, and faster data rates, but additionally extends them into the 6 GHz band.
What’s the point of expanding the range of frequencies available for Wi-Fi? First and foremost, it’s the possibility of significantly reducing the fight for airtime. On today's frequency bands, Wi-Fi networks compete both with each other and with other wireless standards such as Bluetooth. There is also no room for increasing the transmission bandwidth to 80 or 160 MHz to increase throughput without creating excessive interference for surrounding networks.
Wi-Fi 6E is not just another technology upgrade. Instead, it should rather be considered as a spectrum upgrade.
So, in simple words, the additional 500 MHz of new spectrum in the 6 GHz band, made available for the EU countries plus Norway and the UK, provides more airspace beyond existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi, resulting in increased bandwidth and less interference.
But whenever discussing Wi-Fi, the real focus should be on the clients. The consecutive technology generations have always been driven by clients, that’s the way it was in 1997 and that’s how it is now. Sure, APs provide the magical wireless portal, but the client is what provides the wireless connectivity and mobility.
Learn more about Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E from our free, comprehensive guide
Should I upgrade my infrastructure to Wi-Fi 6E now or wait for more clients?
Since Wi-Fi Alliance announced the latest certification, several Wi-Fi 6E chipsets and products have already hit the market from vendors including ASUS, Broadcom, Infineon, Intel, LG Innotek, Maxlinear, MediaTek, ON Semiconductor, Qualcomm, Qorvo, and Samsung.
The latter has always been the leader and first to market with new Wi-Fi capabilities on the mobile device side. Launched in January 2021, Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra was the first fully Wi-Fi 6E compatible smartphone. It was soon followed by the likes of Xiaomi Mi 11, ASUS ROG Phone 5, ASUS Zenfone 8, and Google Pixel 6. Since the current generation of iPhones, despite according rumors, does not support Wi-Fi 6E, the analysts are quite certain that the release of the upcoming iPhone 14 in 2022 will finally mark the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E in Apple products, as well.
Wi-Fi 6E enabled smartphones: Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra, Xiaomi Mi 11, ASUS ROG Phone 5, ASUS Zenfone 8, Google Pixel 6
What about laptops? Well, for almost a year, Wi-Fi 6E radios have been available as an option in high-end laptops from Dell, Lenovo, and many other major laptop vendors. They all use the Intel AX210 radio. By the way, the chances are that if you have bought a laptop in the last couple of years, you should be able to manually upgrade the radio with the Intel AX210. Replace an 802.11ac radio in a Lenovo IdeaPad 3 and you can enjoy 6 GHz connectivity with a low-cost laptop!
Intel AX210 Wireless Card
Bottom line, many Android-based and Windows-based 6 GHz clients are available now and more will be finding their way into the enterprise soon. If you’re about to upgrade your client base anytime now, it’s probably a good idea to invest in Wi-Fi 6E capable access points s and WLAN infrastructure in the next upgrade cycle, as well.
Of course, when upgrading to the latest and greatest Wi-Fi APs, the question of backward compatibility always comes up…
What about backward compatibility?
It’s no secret that the backward compatibility for Wi-Fi has been often seen as… problematic. And not without good reasons. For one, in order for different generations of Wi-Fi technology to co-exist in the same frequency and physical space, 802.11 protection mechanisms are required. These protection mechanisms use a request-to-send/clear-to-send (RTS/CTS) frame exchange process, which adds overhead to the medium and negatively impacts overall performance.
In other words: you might be driving a Ferrari, but the older cars on the highway are slowing you down.
Wi-Fi 6E is entirely different when it comes to clients. A key difference of using the 6 GHz frequency band for 802.11ax technology is actually… there is no need for backward compatibility. Because 802.11a/b/g/n/ac radios operate on either the 2.4 GHz or the 5 GHz band, there is no need for RTS/CTS protection mechanisms. And since the 6 GHz frequency band will be a “pure” 802.11ax band for Wi-Fi communication, the overhead caused by legacy clients will not pose an issue.
Are there any benefits to my legacy clients if I deploy Wi-Fi 6E?
You're probably wondering: "can the legacy devices use a firmware upgrade so they can connect to 6 GHz?". The short answer is “no”. They can only operate on the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequency band, so if you want 6 GHz connectivity, you will need new Wi-Fi 6E client devices.
However, the legacy clients may indirectly benefit from having their traffic carried in a 6 GHz mesh backhaul link. Most Wi-Fi 6 enterprise APs are expected to be tri-frequency. In fact, Extreme AP4000, the first Wi-Fi 6E enterprise-grade access point, is able to operate in 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, AND the new 6 GHz frequency spectrum! Therefore, one of the immediate use cases expected for 6 GHz Wi-Fi will be indoor mesh backhaul.
6 GHz mesh backhaul
Discover Extreme AP4000!
What approach to Wi-Fi 6E should my organization take?
Whenever a new generation of Wi-Fi technology arises, challenges emerge in the enterprise regarding when to spend money on network upgrades based on the existing client population and the assimilation of newer clients.
Different organizations use different strategies when performing WLAN upgrades. Depending on budget and timing, a rip and replace upgrade of all the existing APs may be scheduled. Some companies may use a “salt-and-pepper” design approach, where APs in only certain, more dense areas of a building are upgraded first. Another approach would be to upgrade an entire building with new APs, to test the new 802.11ax technology in a live enterprise environment. If the technology is solid, then upgrades to all other facilities and locations could proceed.
But as we established earlier, Wi-Fi 6E is not just a technology upgrade – it’s a spectrum upgrade. The additional 500 MHz of new spectrum in the 6 GHz band paves the path for many different Wi-Fi design approaches for coverage, segmentation, and use of specific applications.
In other words: if your company is due for a Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade, you should seriously consider Wi-Fi 6E!