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The WiFi 6 Revolution

We’re edging closer every day to seeing WiFi 6 in our homes. WiFi 6 will be bolstered by the newly approved 6 GHz frequency, and the combination of WiFi 6 and 6 GHz spectrum is going to revolutionize home broadband.

I don’t think many people understand how many of our home broadband woes are caused by current WiFi technology. WiFi has been an awesome technology that freed our homes from long category 5 wires everywhere, but WiFi has a basic flaw that became apparent when homeowners started to buy hordes of WiFi-enabled devices. WiFi routers are lousy at handling multiple requests for simultaneous service. It’s not unusual for 25% or more of the bandwidth in a home to get eaten by WiFi interference issues.

The WiFi standard was designed to give equal opportunity to any device to use a broadband network. What that means in practical use is that a WiFi router is designed to stop and start to give every broadband device in range a chance to use the available spectrum. Most of us have numerous WiFi devices in our home, including computers, tablets, TVs, cellphones, and a wide range of smart home devices, toys, etc. Behind the scenes, your WiFi router pauses when you’re downloading a big file to see if your smart thermostat or smartphone wants to communicate. This pause might seem imperceptible to you and happens quickly, but during the time that the router is trying to connect to your thermostat, it’s not processing your file download.

To make matters worse, your current WiFi router also pauses for all of your neighbor’s WiFi networks and devices. Assuming your network is password-protected, these nearby devices won’t use your broadband—but they still cause your WiFi router to pause to see if there is a demand for communications.

The major flaw in WiFi is not the specification that allows all devices to use the network but the fact that we currently try to conduct all of our WiFi communications through only a few channels. The combination of WiFi 6 and 6 GHz is going to fix a lot of the problems. The FCC approved 6 GHz frequency for WiFi use in April 2020. This quadruples the amount of bandwidth available for WiFi. More importantly, the new spectrum opens multiple new channels (adds fourteen 80 MHz channels and seven 160 MHz channels). This means homes can dedicate specific uses to a given channel—direct computers to one channel, smart TVs to another, cellphones to yet another channel. You could load all small bandwidth devices like thermostats and washing machines to a single-channel—it won’t matter if it’s crowded for devices that use tiny bandwidth. Separating devices by channel will drastically reduce the interference and delays that come from multiple devices trying to use the same channel.

The introduction of WiFi 6 is going to require the introduction of devices that can use the WiFi 6 standard and that enable the 6 GHz spectrum. We’re just starting to see devices that take advantage of WiFi 6 and 6 GHz in stores.

It looks like the first readily available use of the new technology is being marketed as WiFi 6E. This application is being aimed at wireless devices. Samsung has released WiFi 6E in the Galaxy S21 Ultra phone. It’s been rumored that WiFi 6E will be in Apple’s 1Phone 13 handsets. Any phone using Qualcomm’s FastConnect 6700 or 6900 chips will be able to use the 6 GHz spectrum. That’s likely to include laptop computers in addition to cellphones.

It’s going to take a while to break the new technology into practical use. You can buy routers today that will handle WiFi 6E from Netgear and a few other vendors, meaning that you could use the new spectrum at home for smartphones and devices with a 6E chip. The advantage of doing so would be to move cellphones off of the spectrum being used for applications like gaming, where WiFi interference is a material issue. The new WiFi 6E chips will also handle bandwidth speeds greater than 1 Gbps, which might benefit a laptop but is largely lost on a smartphone. It’s going to be a while until WiFi 6 is available at work or in public—but over a few years, it will be coming.

The home WiFi network of the future is going to look drastically different than today’s network. One of the downsides of the 6 GHz spectrum is that it doesn’t travel as well through walls as current WiFi, and most homes are going to have to migrate to meshed networks of routers. Smart homeowners will assign various devices to specific channels, and I assume that router software will make this easy to do. Separating WiFi devices to different channels is going to eliminate almost all of the WiFi interference we see today. Big channels of 6 GHz spectrum will mean that devices can grab the bandwidth needed for full performance (assuming the home has good broadband from an ISP).

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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