Wi-Fi 6E: When it’s coming and what it’s good for

New wireless spectrum recently dedicated to Wi-Fi allows for more channels and higher density deployments, but gear to support it won’t be widely deployed until 2020, according to an Extreme Networks exec.

Internet of Things (IoT) / security alert / wireless network management

This spring the FCC opened up a new swath of unlicensed wireless spectrum in the 6GHz band that’s intended for use with Wi-Fi and can provide lower latency and faster data rates. The new spectrum also has a shorter range and supports more channels than bands that were already dedicated to Wi-Fi, making it suitable for deployment in high-density areas like stadiums.

To further understand what Wi-Fi 6E is and how it differs from Wi-Fi 6, I recently talked with Perry Correll, director of product management for networking solutions vendor Extreme Networks.

Kerravala: Wi-Fi 6 seems to be getting a lot of hype but not Wi-Fi 6E. Why?

Correll: There’s so much confusion around all the 666 numbers, it’ll scare you to death. You’ve got Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E – and Wi-Fi 6 still has additional enhancements coming after that, with multi-user multiple input, multiple output (multi-user MIMO) functionalities. Then there’s the 6GHz spectrum, but that’s not where Wi-Fi 6 gets its name from: It’s the sixth generation of Wi-Fi. On top of all that, we are just getting a handle 5G and there already talking about 6G – seriously, look it up – it's going to get even more confusing.

Kerravala: Why do we need Wi-Fi 6E versus regular Wi-Fi 6?

Correll: The last time we got a boost in UNII-2 and UNII-2 Extended was 15 years ago and smartphones hadn’t even taken off yet. Now being able to get 1.2GHz is enormous. With Wi-Fi 6E, we’re not doubling the amount of Wi-Fi space, we're actually quadrupling the amount of usable space. That’s three, four, or five times more spectrum, depending on where you are in the world. Plus you don't have to worry about DFS [dynamic frequency selection], especially indoors.

Wi-Fi 6E is not going to be faster than Wi-Fi 6 and it’s not adding enhanced technology features. The neat thing is operating the 6GHz will require Wi-Fi 6 or above clients. So, we’re not going to have any slow clients and we’re not going to have a lot of noise. We’re going to gain performance in a cleaner environment with faster devices.

Kerravala: Can you also run wider channels?

Correll: Exactly, that's the cool thing about it. If you’re in a typical enterprise environment, 20 and 40MHz is pretty much all you need. In high-density environments like stadiums, trying to do 80 or 160MHz just became tough. Wider channels are really going help things like [virtual reality], which can take advantage of those channels that are eating up the rest of the spectrum. That’s probably the biggest use case.

Three or four years down the road, if you want to do digital signage or screen edge at stadiums then you can use 80 of the 160MHz without getting impacted by anything else. There’s already talk of Wi-Fi 7 and it’s going to have 320MHz-wide channels.

Kerravala: Will this be primarily an augmentation to most Wi-Fi strategies?

Correll: It's definitely going to be at the edges in the short term. The first products are probably going to launch at the end of this year, and they’re going to be consumer-grade. For the enterprise, 6GHz-capable products will start showing up next year. Not before 2022 will you actually start seeing any density – so, not any time soon. For smartphone companies, Wi-Fi is not a big deal and they’d rather focus on other features.

Still, it’s a huge opportunity. The nicest thing about the 6GHz versus CBRS [Citizens Broadband Radio Service] or 5G is [that many] would rather stick with Wi-Fi than having to move to a different architecture. These are the users that are going to drive the manufacturers of the widgets to IoT devices or robots or whatever requires the 6GHz. It's a clean spectrum and might be cheaper than the regular Wi-Fi 6. There are also some power-saving benefits there, too.

Kerravala: There’s talk of 5G replacing Wi-Fi 6. But what’s the practicality of that?

Correll: Realistically, you can’t put a SIM in every device. But one of the big issues that come up is data ownership because the carrier is going to own your data, not you. If you want to use your data for any kind of business analytics, will the carrier release the data back to you at a certain price? That’s a frightening thought.

There are just too many reasons why Wi-Fi is not going away. When Wi-Fi 6 and 5G-capable devices come out, what will happen to all the other laptops, tablets, and IoT devices that only have Wi-Fi? There will either be Wi-Fi-only or Wi-Fi and 5G devices, but 5G is not going to replace Wi-Fi altogether. If you look at the 5G radio network backbone, Wi-Fi is a component. It's one big happy family. The technologies are designed to coexist.

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