The FCC has just approved rules allowing unlicensed use of 1,200MHz of spectrum around the 6GHz band. This very technical-sounding government announcement has huge consumer implications, though. The frequencies will pave the way for a new generation of Wi-Fi — likely to be called Wi-Fi 6E — that will provide plenty of benefits. While your existing devices can't use it, it will mean faster and better Wi-Fi performance, especially in congested city environments where the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are stretched to their limits.
We've got three different "6" names/standards here to discuss, so let's define them each before there's any confusion. The FCC is freeing up new spectrum in the 6GHz range for unlicensed use, and a big chunk of it is going to end up used by an upcoming Wi-Fi standard. When it comes to Wi-Fi, there's the current Wi-Fi 6 standard, which operates on existing 2.4 and 5GHz bands, and the upcoming Wi-Fi 6E standard, which can use 6GHz bands.
Also, Wi-Fi 6E isn't just Wi-Fi 6 for 6GHz. The new standard will deliver some of its own changes and rules, though many of Wi-Fi 6's benefits were built with the eventuality of 6GHz in mind.
In total, the FCC is allowing 1,200MHz around the 6GHz range to be used unlicensed, but only 850MHz of that can be used outside low-power indoor-only applications. Speaking to a signal processing expert, I'm told that could affect Wi-Fi access points and mesh backhaul, which usually transmits at higher power levels. Incumbent use, which the rules also take into account, will further trim that down, depending on where you are. The 6GHz spectrum already hosts a handful of licensed users, like point-to-point microwave transmitters and satellite providers, and that will ensure their operations aren't disrupted. In less technical terms, we probably won't end up using the full 1,200MHz of new spectrum with Wi-Fi 6E, but it will still be a tremendous upgrade.
For a bit of technical context, 2.4GHz Wi-Fi has less than 100MHz assigned to it, allowing 3 non-overlapping 20 MHz channels (or 11-14 overlapping 20Mhz channels, depending on your region). 5GHz Wi-Fi has closer to 25 non-overlapping 20MHz channels (and closer to 50 including overlap). The 1200MHz of ~6GHz spectrum the FCC just freed up will allow for 59 new non-overlapping 20MHz Wi-Fi channels, based on estimates we got from Qualcomm. Depending on how you parse the numbers between spectrum and channels, we're looking at a bare minimum of double the total existing Wi-Fi capacity added just thanks to this change, though it could result in up to six times the total capacity, with estimates of real-life performance gains ranging from 2-4x in varying circumstances.
More capacity also means less congestion and the ability to use wider channels more reliably in more areas, which means faster Wi-Fi too — and even legacy devices can indirectly benefit. With newer gadgets supporting the new bands over time, legacy devices will have more space on the old frequencies as hardware is retired over time, and upcoming mesh devices can use the new frequencies for faster and less congested backhaul between access points, delivering faster experiences on the legacy frequencies.
We're told that the new 6GHz/Wi-Fi 6E frequencies will also behave about the same as the existing 5GHz Wi-Fi frequencies. So while they won't propagate as well as lower-band 2.4GHz wifi, you shouldn't notice much of a difference compared to 5GHz, but it will likely offer improved latency due to reduced congestion, for at least a while. Enterprise and public use cases will see up to 4x throughput gains with Wi-Fi 6e.
Qualcomm tells us there aren't any engineering hurdles for hardware products following this announcement, either. The company and the industry as a whole have been preparing for this new spectrum to be made available for years. Unfortunately for anyone that just bought a phone, existing devices won't be able to make use of these new Wi-Fi channels. But, we're told new hardware based on unapproved/"draft" Wi-Fi 6E standards will probably start to arrive as soon as the end of this year, with certified devices landing early next year — at least, in the US. Wi-Fi 6E and availability might vary based on your market, since all this is subject to regulatory approval of local governments.
But for those of us in the 'states, this is a big change and a huge benefit to consumers, especially for businesses, public Wi-Fi, and folks in congested city environments. The Wi-Fi Alliance says that interoperability testing and standards will be determined soon.
- Matthew Franklin