Wi-Fi 6E Will Complement 5G

US Federal Communications Commission to vote on Wi-Fi 6E

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote before the end of April 2020 on a plan that would increase spectrum available for the millions and millions of Wi-Fi-connected smartphones, laptops and other devices.

A couple of weeks ago, FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, proposed draft rules that would permit unlicensed devices to operate in the 6 GHz band, which would make available 1,200 MHz of channel bandwidth for unlicensed use. The FCC will cast its vote on the rules at its Open Commission Meeting on 23 April 2020.

It’s a well-known fact that Wi-Fi runs on unlicensed spectrum that the FCC and other regulators leave open for public use. By contrast, wireless carriers operate their mobile networks using airwaves specifically licensed for them, often at significant licensing fees.

Given the growth in data usage and content creation, both unlicensed and licensed services are always in need of more spectrum. Wi-Fi advocates say that spectrum currently used for Wi-Fi, specifically the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, don’t offer enough bandwidth to meet projected demands. It’s hoped that the 6 GHz band will be available to enable wider channels, meeting the need to carry traffic from several devices simultaneously. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Facebook are already eyeing the 6 GHz band for new devices, including wearables and wireless augmented and virtual reality headsets.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is branding this new version of Wi-Fi with the “Wi-Fi 6E” label, a reflection of the extension of Wi-Fi 6 into the 6 GHz frequency band. The first supporting devices should be ready to ship soon after the FCC vote, as the commission is expected to approve the new 6 GHz allocation. The components are already in place: in February, Broadcom announced the first Wi-Fi 6E chip for routers and smartphones, and Qualcomm said it’s ready to go with a full suite of compatible products for mobile devices, PCs, automotive and networks using the 6 GHz band.

Supporters of Wi-Fi 6E, including tech companies, chip-makers and cable providers, say the airwaves are needed to handle the exploding use of Wi-Fi. According to data from Cisco, the number of public Wi-Fi hot spots in the US is projected to triple to 61.6 million in 2023 from 2018, and Wi-Fi connected devices are estimated to soar to 3.4 billion from 2.2 billion over that same time frame.

We note that unlicensed spectrum might also be accessed by wireless carriers, which could lean on open spectrum for LTE and 5G connectivity. It’s tempting to think of cellular connectivity and particularly 5G as a rival to Wi-Fi. But it’s not so simple in reality, as the two are being designed to complement each other.

We expect to see 5G devices with support for the new evolution of Wi-Fi as a norm in 2021, enabling phones and tablets to take advantage of whatever spectrum and networks are available, providing a smooth user experience. It’s expected that the addition of 6 GHz spectrum to the mix will result in faster data transfers with lower latency and much improved stability, as the number of connected devices continues to balloon.