What is Wi-Fi 6E?
Wi-Fi 6E is one variant of the 802.11ax standard. It uses 2.4 gigahertz, 5 GHz and, for the first time ever in the Wi-Fi realm, 6 GHz spectrum. As the latest generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6E introduces several new features that result in faster speeds, lower latency, and higher-capacity individual cells and overall wireless local area network (WLAN) systems. And, as with earlier 802.11 variants, Wi-Fi 6E requires proper design and configuration to fully realize its benefits.
How does Wi-Fi 6E work?
The operational underpinnings of Wi-Fi 6E are based in the IEEE 802.11 framework. As with previous Wi-Fi standards, Wi-Fi 6E is a half-duplex technology bound by the laws of physics for interference and coexistence with signals in the same unlicensed spectrum. It's also bound by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its regulatory constraints for parameters like output power and discrete channel usage.
All three bands -- 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz -- benefit from 6E's new features, but the most impressive aspects are found in the 6 GHz band exclusively. In this spectrum, 6E adds 1,200 megahertz of new frequencies that enable as many as 59 new 20 MHz wide channels or as many as seven new 160 MHz wide channels -- with impressive counts for 40 MHz and 80 MHz wide channels as well. More available channels mean less contention, where wider channels mean greater throughputs.
The technical nitty-gritty of Wi-Fi 6E includes the following features:
- highest-performing modulation scheme ever used in Wi-Fi -- namely, 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation;
- potential for up to 8x8 uplink/downlink, though most 6E access points (APs) top out at 4x4;
- orthogonal frequency-division multiple access, which breaks up channels into new combinations called resource units with varying widths to service different types of client devices simultaneously; and
- target wake time and basic service set coloring, which enable battery power savings for client devices and the ability to more efficiently coexist with other APs that may be using the same channel.
But perhaps most impressive in the 6 GHz spectrum of Wi-Fi 6E is no legacy clients are allowed that might otherwise slow things down. All other 802.11 standards prioritized backward compatibility for client devices, often at the expense of the highest-performance users. That ends with the 6 GHz side of Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E
IEEE writes the various network standards, including 802.11, which is the formalized framework for what is generally known as Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi Alliance puts its own touch on the WLAN industry with limited interoperability testing and an emphasis on marketing. The Wi-Fi Alliance has dubbed the 802.11ax standard both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.
The difference between the Wi-Fi 6 standard and Wi-Fi 6E is whether a given AP or client device operates in the 6 GHz band along with 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz. If it's an 802.11ax device that doesn't support 6 GHz, then it's referred to as Wi-Fi 6 hardware. If it can do all three bands, then it's Wi-Fi 6E.
Benefits of Wi-Fi 6E
When properly deployed, Wi-Fi 6E provides several tangible benefits, including the following:
- more flexible WLAN designs because of the increased number of channels and channel widths available;
- higher client density per cell and per system;
- higher speeds and lower latencies;
- better support for bandwidth-intensive applications, like the highest-resolution video streams;
- overall efficiency gains per cell for all client devices; and
- improved security where Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) is adopted.
The advantages of Wi-Fi 6E are best realized when both client devices and APs are as strong as possible, supporting more data streams and with up-to-date code in play. Most 6E environments are a wide mix of client vintages, but all can benefit from 6E's focus on operational efficiency.
Depending on an enterprise's WLAN lifecycle, Wi-Fi 6E may be a chance for some soul searching on whether it's time to ditch hardware controllers and bloated network management systems and move to the cloud for AP management or perhaps even to change vendors. Those opportunities don't come along often for those who run large wireless networks, so the significance shouldn't be overlooked.
Drawbacks to Wi-Fi 6E
As with any technology, some drawbacks to Wi-Fi 6E should be considered. These could be drawbacks or simply the cost of doing business.
To use 6 GHz with 802.1X authentication, service set identifiers have to support WPA3, which could baffle some organizations if they aren't ready. Also, new spectrum requires updated support tools, including survey devices and software and spectrum analyzers. Organizations may need to upgrade LAN switches for Power over Ethernet (PoE) and multigigabit uplinks and even cabling to support the new switches.
Another potential drawback is the cost of Wi-Fi 6E devices, such as APs and a residential Wi-Fi 6E router. These devices can be quite expensive, especially for large deployments. Additionally, considering the newness of 6E hardware sets, some vendors could botch early code versions and release customer-facing bugs with their newest and highly marketed 802.11ax products. It's just a fact of life with certain vendors.
Another challenge for a Wi-Fi 6E network is indoor APs operate in low-power mode, while outside APs can use full power. Outside 6E deployments require Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC), where an AP checks into an FCC-synced database to ensure it lands on a channel that won't interfere with incumbent licensed users of the 6 GHz spectrum. AFC has been used in other technologies, but it remains to be seen how smoothly it goes with Wi-Fi 6E.
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Should you upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E?
Whether a given environment should upgrade to support Wi-Fi 6E should generally be driven by business and network requirements, which vary across the board. Organizations need a sound understanding of PoE capacities, switch capabilities, 6 GHz's wireless security requirements and the client devices that will use the network. If design and surveys are done in-house, then new 6E-capable tools will be required.