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Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E: Spectrum, not hype, is key difference

The extended spectrum of Wi-Fi 6E sounds promising. But, when assessing Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E, organizations should pay close attention to radio frequency characteristics.

Wi-Fi 6E is rightly garnering all sorts of interest and excitement right now, but as with all wireless standard advancements, be mindful of the inevitable hype.

First and foremost, from the perspective of feature sets and radio frequency (RF) capabilities written into the IEEE standard, Wi-Fi 6E is still 802.11ax -- and just like Wi-Fi 6 (no E).

Where Wi-Fi 6E gets exciting -- and perhaps a bit overblown -- is in its new frequency availability. For decades now, Wi-Fi has operated in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz industrial, scientific and medical band and in the 5 GHz unlicensed national information infrastructure (UNII) bands. Both slices of spectrum are feeling the pinch of Wi-Fi's ever-increasing popularity. This is why many people say Wi-Fi 6E will play a significant role in changing the overall Wi-Fi paradigm.

Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E: Higher frequency, more room to operate

In the 2.4 GHz band, Wi-Fi in the United States has well under 100 MHz in which to operate, and it only allows three noninterfering 20 MHz channels. 5 GHz permits the potential for 25 channels, again at 20 MHz wide.

But this is also where the Wi-Fi Alliance and marketing departments get a bit loopy: In 5 GHz, the wireless standards allow those channels to be bonded to form wider channels at 40, 80 or 160 MHz, which theoretically leads to the higher throughputs promised in 802.11n and 802.11ac.

Those wider channels require conditions that usually can't be achieved in the real world unless you are talking about small, isolated networks.

There is no free lunch, however. Those wider channels require conditions that usually can't be achieved in the real world unless you are talking about small, isolated networks. Alas, such is the state of Wi-Fi: lots of mixed messages about huge numbers that can't be achieved in most cases.

With Wi-Fi 6E, we gain a whopping 1,200 MHz of new spectrum, spanning 5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz, in the UNII-5, -6, -7 and -8 bands. This translates to 59 new channels at 20 MHz wide and presents an impressive potential for various wider channels.

Unlike previous standards, at least some of those wide channels will be reliably achievable by Wi-Fi 6E client devices engineered to support the power and radio requirements of those bonded channels -- PCs, for example. It is doubtful that many mobile clients will ever get beyond 40 MHz channels due to resource constraints. Nonetheless, that capacity boost will be one of the main marketing drumbeats of Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E.

wi-fi 6 vs. 6e
See how Wi-Fi 6E changes the Wi-Fi paradigm.

Cleaner air, with caveats

Remember, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E share all the same features as written in the 802.11ax standard. We've learned that the 6 GHz spectrum, where 6E operates, is impressively generous in size. This space is also largely free of the interference found down in the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz unlicensed bands.

It's important to realize, though, that, as you go higher in frequency, the range at the same power decreases, as does the technology's ability to penetrate walls and other obstacles. This means wireless LAN (WLAN) designers must consider the differences between 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz when networks are created or refreshed; otherwise, holes in coverage are likely to exist.

Wi-Fi 6E faces another complication when you take it outside. The 6 GHz space is peppered with incumbent users, including licensed point-to-point microwave links and mobile TV broadcast uplinks. This means Wi-Fi 6E access points will require frequency control mechanisms that will prevent them from stepping on local licensees where they are authorized to operate.

A qualified bonanza

To be clear, Wi-Fi 6E represents a huge opportunity for the WLAN industry and its customers. Assuming the required conditions are achieved, both Wi-Fi 6 and 6E can deliver increased capacity, lower latency and accelerated data rates.

At the same time, not all devices will be able to take advantage of the headline-grabbing widest-channel capabilities of 6E. Perhaps most importantly, designers must understand the particular RF characteristics that underpin Wi-Fi 6E -- failure to do so could botch WLAN design.

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