The Wi-Fi Alliance a few weeks ago said it will launch the Wi-Fi 6E brand to classify Wi-Fi devices operating in the 6-gigahertz spectrum, which the Federal Communications Commission plans to soon release. As traditional Wi-Fi devices operate in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz airwaves, I initially hated the idea of 6E because I felt like it would further confuse consumers, forcing them to figure out if their Wi-Fi 6 products would talk to their 6E products or not.
But in fact, consumers buying 6E devices are likely to see an improvement over those using Wi-Fi 6 devices. And with Broadcom announcing it will have a Wi-Fi 6 E-capable chip available by the end of the year, they will soon get the chance to experience the difference.
Wi-Fi 6 devices are available today. The name refers to the latest iteration of Wi-Fi, known in engineering circles as 802.11ax. In prior versions of Wi-Fi, the big reason to upgrade was a boost in capacity on the network, which is measured in terms of speed. So with each upgrade, you’d go from tens of megabits to hundreds and hundreds of megabits to a gigabit and change.
But with Wi-Fi 6, the way devices handle data packets change. So instead of every item in a network sending its data to a router and then pausing to let another packet through, engineers embraced a radio technology that allows a router to handle multiple data packets at once. Which is awesome, because it decreases latency and helps in environments with a lot of Wi-Fi devices. It also offers more capacity,
The challenge is that for the new radio technology to work, both the router and the device talking to the router have to be Wi-Fi 6 compatible. And while phones, laptops, and newer, more expensive devices will upgrade to the new Wi-Fi 6 chips, most existing devices — and even new consumer IoT devices — will not. In other words, for the smart home, the Wi-Fi 6 advantage will be a long time coming.
This is why Google’s Sanjay Noronha, lead product manager for Google Wifi, told me in an interview last year that Google didn’t add Wi-Fi 6 capability to its router. It may have made a mistake there, as every other router maker is launching Wi-Fi 6-capable devices, but it’s also not wrong. As Kevin and I tell people, there’s no need to update your router to Wi-Fi 6 unless you were planning to buy a new router anyhow. If you’re in the market, sure, pick up a Wi-Fi 6 device. But if you’re not and you do upgrade, you won’t see a significant boost.
But Wi-Fi 6E is different. It is an entirely new swath of spectrum that’s not congested by ovens, laptops, TVs, or any number of Wi-Fi devices. As Perry Correll, marketing manager at Extreme Networks, who came on the IoT Podcast last month to explain why Wi-Fi 6 was so interesting, puts it, it’s like a new highway lane.
“Let’s say you’re sitting on that freeway in the morning and you’ve got four lanes of traffic and we’re all going 12 miles an hour and you’re in the left lane and you’re still going 12 miles an hour, and it’s driving you nuts,” explained Correll in the podcast. “Then you look over to your left and you see they’re building this brand-new highway and it’s eight lanes wide and right now there’s nobody on it and you’re thinking, when am I going to be able to get on that?”
The answer is later this year, when Broadcom’s chip finds its way into new devices and the FCC signs off on the spectrum allocation. The best part is that only Wi-Fi 6 devices will be able to use the 6GHz spectrum, which means that all those slower 2.4GHz devices won’t even be able to access the fast lane. So for consumers with 6E-capable routers and Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E devices, the upgrade to 6 and 6E will be a much-improved experience.
Vijay Nagarajan, vice president of marketing for the Wireless Communications and Connectivity Division at Broadcom, says that in addition to adding Wi-Fi 6E in this latest chip, Broadcom took steps — including reengineering the radio — to cut power consumption by 5x. The new Wi-Fi 6E chips are going to sell at a premium, which means it will be a while until we see them in low-cost battery-powered devices such as light switches or sensors. But the chip’s power consumption of half a milliamp means it could make sense in applications that historically used Bluetooth, Zigbee, or Z-Wave, which consume far less power.
It’s also possible that getting newer cell phones, laptops, and maybe TVs off the 2.4GHz networks where a ton of video cameras, video doorbells, and other IoT devices operate could help with older smart home device latency as well. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.