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Wi-Fi is getting its biggest upgrade in 20 years

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In a few months, there’s going to be a lot more Wi-Fi to go around. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open up a plot of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use — the same regulatory go-ahead that lets your router broadcast over the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. That means there are now more open airwaves — a lot more — that routers can use to broadcast Wi-Fi signals. Once the new spectrum is officially opened for business later this year, that should translate to faster, more reliable connections from the next generation of devices.

This is the biggest spectrum addition since the FCC cleared the way for Wi-Fi in 1989, so it’s a huge deal. The new spectrum basically quadruples the amount of space available for routers and other devices, so it will mean a lot more bandwidth and a lot less interference for any device that can take advantage of it.

“This is the most monumental decision around Wi-Fi spectrum in its history, in the 20 years we’ve been around,” Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry-backed group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi, said ahead of the vote.

Devices are expected to start supporting 6GHz Wi-Fi by the end of 2020, so its implementation isn’t far away. When it arrives, expect to see it branded under the name “Wi-Fi 6E.”

Here’s what we know so far about what to expect.

How will this fix my bad Wi-Fi?

If you’ve ever had trouble connecting to your Wi-Fi network, there’s a good chance spectrum congestion was the problem. Whenever you have too many devices trying to connect over the same band of frequencies, some devices will start to get dropped. So if you see a long list of nearby Wi-Fi networks in your area, that may be why your connection is getting slower and less reliable. There are simply too many competing signals for your computer to get through.

6GHz Wi-Fi can go a long way toward solving that problem. It offers not just a new swath of airwaves for routers to use, but a spacious swath that doesn’t require overlapping signals like on some current Wi-Fi channels. The new spectrum has enough room for up to seven maximum-capacity Wi-Fi streams to all be broadcast simultaneously and not interfere with each other — all without using any of the previously available spectrum.

To get a little more specific, the FCC is opening up 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band. For the past two decades, Wi-Fi has been operating with roughly 400MHz of spectrum, and all available channels had to be split up within that limited space. Channels on the 6GHz band are expected to be 160MHz each in size. Only two channels at that size could fit inside the currently available airspace.

What is 6GHz Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi works by broadcasting over airwaves that are open for anyone to use. Today, it’s working over two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Now, we’re adding a third band, 6GHz.

The numbers make a difference (2.4GHz travels farther, but 6GHz delivers data faster), but what really matters isn’t the specific frequencies being used, but how large a swath of airwaves is available. And that’s why 6GHz is particularly exciting: this new band quadruples the total space available to traditional Wi-Fi.

On an immediate level, it means that if you’re the first person in your apartment building to get a 6GHz router, you’re going to be living large as far as connectivity goes because no one will be competing with you. But even once 6GHz routers become more common several years from now, the hope is that the more spacious spectrum will allow for signals to remain faster and stronger than the ones we use today. “We will not be in the same position we are today five years from now,” Robinson said.

Will this make Wi-Fi faster? Sort of

Technically, 6GHz Wi-Fi has the same theoretical top speed as 5GHz Wi-Fi: 9.6 Gbps, the maximum offered under the Wi-Fi 6 standard, the current version of Wi-Fi.

You’re still not going to get that speed in real life, but the new airwaves should help bump your speed up. That’s because the limited spectrum available at 5GHz means Wi-Fi signals are often not as large as they could be. At 6GHz, it’s assumed that routers will broadcast at the current maximum allowable channel size, meaning a faster connection.

Wi-Fi connections to smartphones could hit 1–2 Gbps over these new networks, Robinson said. Those are the kinds of speeds expected from millimeter-wave 5G, which so far has very limited availability. Of course, your speeds will still be limited by what your home internet provider offers, but it’s a huge potential leap.

When can I expect Wi-Fi 6 devices in stores?

The first wave of devices using 6GHz Wi-Fi is expected in the final quarter of 2020, according to Robinson. But deployment should really kick off in early 2021 when the Wi-Fi Alliance begins offering a certifications program for Wi-Fi 6E devices.

Manufacturers have been preparing for this moment. Already, the chipmaker Broadcom has announced a Wi-Fi 6E mobile chip. Qualcomm has said that it’s ready to support 6GHz Wi-Fi in next-gen wireless products. And Intel said it’ll have chips ready for January 2021.

Two major router companies, Linksys and Netgear, have signaled that they’re on board. And Apple previously said the FCC’s approval “sets the course for the next generation of Wi-Fi networks.”

Smartphones are likely to be the first consumer devices to adopt Wi-Fi 6E, Phil Solis, a wireless analyst with IDC, told The Verge. Solis predicts 316 million devices will ship with Wi-Fi 6E support in 2021. After smartphones, he expects tablets to follow, with adoption in TVs likely in 2022.

“Wi-Fi’s a very important part of the phone, so higher-end phones have higher quality Wi-Fi chips in them,” Solis said. “Smartphones are a key product that makes sense for 6E because people use their phones for pretty much everything.”

How will I know if a device supports Wi-Fi 6E?

Right now, when you go to buy a new phone or laptop, you might see the label “Wi-Fi 6” on the box. That’s great for now since it means your device supports the latest Wi-Fi standard, which offers more efficient wireless performance.

But “Wi-Fi 6” means your device is still operating on the same old spectrum, so starting later this year, you’ll want to start looking for the label “Wi-Fi 6E.” That stands for “Wi-Fi 6 extended into the 6GHz band.” It’s the (relatively) consumer-friendly name you’ll see on phones, laptops, routers, and other gadgets that support 6GHz Wi-Fi.

All Wi-Fi 6E devices should be compatible with one another and backward compatible with whatever router you already have at home. The important thing to know, though, is that you won’t see the 6GHz benefits until you buy a Wi-Fi 6E router. Chances are, those will be some of the first products to hit the market.

What’s the catch?

There are a bunch!

The big one is… companies actually have to follow through! All of the signs suggest they will, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has tried to point companies toward other forms of Wi-Fi before — like speedy WiGig or low-power HaLow — that haven’t panned out, pretty much at all. (Robinson said that’s not what’s happening this time. “6GHz will become an integral part of Wi-Fi 6 and future generations of Wi-Fi,” he said.)

And assuming this all does work out, you’ll still have to replace your devices to get the benefit. Current gadgets aren’t set up to use 6GHz networks (it’s largely been illegal to broadcast, after all), so you won’t see the benefits until you buy a new router and a new phone, laptop, or other Wi-Fi-enabled device that can connect to it.

Wi-Fi 6E devices will still be backward compatible with all old Wi-Fi devices, but those gadgets largely won’t get the benefit of the upgrade. They’ll still be stuck using whatever version of Wi-Fi they shipped on. At least under the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification program, the 6GHz network will be reserved for more efficient Wi-Fi 6 devices.

Also, airwaves are overseen country by country. The FCC is opening up 6GHz in the US, but people in Europe still have to wait on individual countries and the European Commission to do the same for them. It could happen later this year, but there’s no promise of that. That means regulatory issues could delay availability of this tech in some countries. Many gadgets are shipped globally, too, so it could also slow down overall adoption if major markets fall behind.

The 6GHz spectrum also has some existing licensed users, and Wi-Fi will have to work around them. Indoors, that’s not expected to present an issue, since your walls should prevent interference. But outdoors, routers will need to make use of something called an “automated frequency control” system to ensure they don’t interfere with existing 6GHz users. That means less space to broadcast, which could degrade overall performance.

What does this have to do with 5G?

Nothing. But also — okay, it kind of seems like everything has something to do with 5G right now, doesn’t it?

Here’s the deal: technically, the FCC didn’t open up new “Wi-Fi spectrum.” It opened up new “unlicensed” spectrum, which is roughly what it sounds like. It means that you don’t need a license to use it, so anyone can use it as long as they do so responsibly.

That means other devices and technologies could make use of the 6GHz band, potentially taking up space Wi-Fi wants to use. And yes, 5G is one of those things.

Cell carriers have in the past used unlicensed spectrum to augment the licensed spectrum that makes up the core of their wireless networks. They did this with LTE as one of many technologies meant to speed up connections. From the looks of things, it’s possible they’ll do that again by letting 5G overlap on the newly cleared spectrum with Wi-Fi 6.

Will this lead to interference issues? Will 5G come to dominate all global connectivity and totally replace Wi-Fi? Probably not, but it’s too early to say. The two standards aren’t necessarily in contention, though, so it’s not like one has to be the winner or loser here.

“There’s so much spectrum in the 6GHz band that there should be room for both,” Solis said. Cellular use of 6GHz would be similar to Wi-Fi use, in factories or small cell sites, he said. “You’re not gonna see macrocells using 6GHz.”

For now, the tech industry seems to be rallying around 6GHz Wi-Fi, which seems like a good sign that Wi-Fi will be the main beneficiary — at least for the immediate future — of the 6GHz spectrum opening up.

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