Your Wi-Fi connectivity could be much better in the next couple of years, thanks to the latest FCC decision. The commission voted today to release a new block of 6GHz spectrum for unlicensed use, meaning routers will have more airwaves on which to broadcast signals. The industry plans to call this Wi-Fi 6E, which is similar but not the same as the current Wi-Fi 6 standard. It’ll free up a lot of bandwidth, but only once you get some new devices with support for Wi-Fi 6E.
Current Wi-Fi networks operate in the unlicensed 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges, but the FCC hasn’t added any appreciable amount of spectrum to these ranges in about 20 years. Unleashing the 6GHz spectrum will roughly quadruple the amount of spectrum available to Wi-Fi networks. The new block is actually a bit larger than the 6GHz name would imply. It’s 1200MHz wide between 5.925 and 7.125 gigahertz.
Unlike the jump from 2.4GHz to 5GHz, this change won’t boost the maximum speed of the Wi-Fi standard. Wi-Fi 6E will have the same maximum theoretical speed as Wi-Fi 6: 9.6Gbps. You’ve probably never seen Wi-Fi get anywhere near that fast, but you might get closer with Wi-Fi 6E. The limited amount of spectrum available to 5GHz networks meant that channels couldn’t be as wide as standards bodies would like them to be. Wi-Fi 6E routers should be able to broadcast wider channels (160MHz each) that have less interference and higher capacities. Speeds of 1-2Gbps on Wi-Fi 6E are not out of the question.
Many of the devices available now will tout their compatibility with Wi-Fi 6, the latest version of the standard previously known as 802.11ax. Unfortunately, none of these phones, computers, or routers will be able to use the new Wi-Fi 6E airwaves. The Wi-Fi Alliance says the first routers with Wi-Fi 6E support should launch by late 2020.
Devices that can connect to those networks will probably take a little longer. Broadcom, Qualcomm, and Intel have all said they have next-generation chip designs that will support Wi-Fi 6E. These probably won’t show up in hardware you can buy until early 2021. Even then, Wi-Fi 6E will be reserved for the most expensive devices with all the bells and whistles. We’ll also have to contend with varying spectrum rules in other countries. If other regions drag their regulatory feet, that could slow the rollout. Even if things move quickly on the government side, it’ll probably be a few years before 6GHz Wi-Fi is anywhere near as ubiquitous as today’s 5GHz networks.
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