This week at CES, we saw several Wi-Fi 6E-compatible devices launch, including a router from Netgear and a phone from Samsung. While this is awesome, I know y’all are going to ask what it means for the internet of things.
And I am happy to tell you that for the most part, it means nothing.
Wi-Fi 6E (the E stands for enhanced) is simply a way to talk about a new swath of spectrum that the FCC opened up last year. For decades, Wi-Fi has used the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz bands to ship data around homes, offices, parks, and wherever else people and their phones and computers congregated.
But the thing about wireless communications is that the ability to jam bits into each hertz of spectrum is limited, which leads to all sorts of compromises. Maybe you bring in more antennas to help create new paths of communication using the same hertz. Maybe you try intelligent routing or more efficient data-packaging schemes. But eventually, you will need more hertz.
And that’s what Wi-Fi 6E gives us. It was a big deal that the FCC decided to open up 1,200 megahertz to unlicensed (licensed use is for telcos, the government, and television stations that pay for the right to use the airwaves or are assigned it) use cases. And dedicating a chunk of that to Wi-Fi only made sense given Wi-FI’s ubiquitous status as the wireless internet.
Wi-Fi 6E also has some unique capabilities. It’s not only a fast lane for high data rate traffic like computing and video, but for devices that are Wi-Fi 6E certified. So if you’re a packet sent by a 2.4 GHz device, you’re like a double tractor-trailer in the lane dedicated for sports cars. It’s not happening.
And this is why the Wi-Fi 6E isn’t going to matter much for the IoT. Most IoT devices don’t need a lot of bandwidth, and even those that do aren’t going to need Wi-Fi 6E because they already have 5 GHz. When it comes to sensors and light bulbs, cost is a huge factor, and the latest silicon is expensive.
Since the IoT doesn’t need Wi-Fi 6E (most IoT devices don’t even need 5 GHz Wi-Fi), device makers won’t upgrade. Brian Bedrosian, VP of marketing with Infineon, explains that the chips using the 2.4 GHz will offer better range (those radio waves travel better through walls), which means companies will continue to use chips in their devices that rely only on 2.4 GHz spectrum.
Eventually, once Wi-Fi 6 gets narrowband channel support, we may see devices adopt 5 GHz-capable radios because they can use the smaller channels to boost range in the 5 GHz band. But that will require customers who demand that feature in their devices so the chipmakers build those chips. And that still won’t involve Wi-Fi 6E.
So for consumers, enterprises, and anyone else wondering about Wi-Fi 6E, it’s going to be awesome for phones, computers, and maybe even media devices. But there’s no need to upgrade your gear if you’re focused more on the IoT.