The Biggest Thing In Wireless This Year Might Not Be 5G

By Patrick Moorhead - August 7, 2020
WiFi 6 official logo.

With all the noise and anticipation surrounding 5G over the past 18 months, compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, you may have missed a potentially game-changing announcement in the wireless space earlier in the year. In late April, the Federal Communications Commission voted to expand a section of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. The FCC’s announcement has broad implications for the utilization of Wi-Fi in the home, particularly for smart home-related applications, and it may be more meaningful to consumers than the more widely publicized and hyped arrival of 5G (at least in the short term).

Diving into the specifics, the FCC voted unanimously to allow the entire 1200MHz of the 6GHz band to be shared with unlicensed Wi-Fi. This latest move by the FCC frees up more spectrum for linking the 5G in-home devices that facilitate popular applications like video calls and video streaming to connected IoT devices.

Prior to the FCC’s announcement, typical routers in the home could only broadcast their wireless signals over the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums. The FCC announcement essentially allows routers to take advantage of significantly more open airwaves to broadcast Wi-Fi signals. The benefit for consumers and businesses alike should be more dependable connections to the next generation of devices.

A bit of Wi-Fi history

It’s useful to note that this announcement is the biggest spectrum addition since the FCC cleared the proverbial airwave decks for Wi-Fi in 1989. Put into that context, this is an enormous deal. The new spectrum fundamentally adds 4 times the amount of space available for routers and other connected devices. Not only does a lot more bandwidth become available, but dramatically less interference comes along for the ride for any device that can utilize the 6GHz band.

Qualcomm FastConnect Wi-Fi 6E Solution Portfolio

Consumers and businesses can expect to see devices and routers that support 6GHz Wi-Fi by holiday season under the name “Wi-Fi 6E.” As is usually the case, expect the major leading router manufacturers, such as Netgear and Linksys, to lead the charge with Wi-Fi 6E-enabled routers. From a technology ingredient standpoint, I expect Qualcomm to play its typical leadership role, powering smartphones and next-generation routers with its high-performance Wi-Fi 6E silicon offerings.

Today’s smart home is one of the reasons for bad Wi-Fi

It’s hard to find a consumer who has never had difficulty at one time or another connecting to the Wi-Fi network in their home. Bad Wi-Fi connections can be a consequence of many things, but “spectrum congestion” tends to be one of the leading causes. This scenario occurs when too many devices attempt to connect over the same frequency band. Some devices get dropped, and your network wireless performance degrades and less dependable. In a world where it’s not uncommon for 20 or more devices to compete for 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands in a household, this problem is a major source of irritation and consumer dissatisfaction. It also serves as an obstacle for unlocking the full potential of the smart home.

Wi-Fi 6E has the potential to alleviate “spectrum congestion”

From a practical implementation standpoint, Wi-Fi 6E will offer a roomy envelope of airwaves for routers to use without having to overlap signals like on many contemporary Wi-Fi channels. Without using any of the other available spectrum, 6GHz has enough headroom for up to seven maximum-capacity Wi-Fi streams, capable of being broadcasted at the same time and without interfering with each other. This is a big deal.

With all this goodness, however, users shouldn’t expect to get substantially faster Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6E has the same theoretical ceiling speed (9.6Gbps) of 5GHz Wi-Fi, and the maximum pace of Wi-Fi 6, the latest and greatest current version of Wi-Fi. Optimistically, the new airwaves should increase overall Wi-Fi speeds; 6GHz will allow the next generation of routers to broadcast at the current maximum allowable channel size, which should translate to a faster connection. Naturally, speeds will be capped by what users’ home ISPs offer, but this could be a dramatic step forward.

Some closing thoughts

As with all things in life, Wi-Fi 6E will not be a free lunch. To take full advantage of this new wireless protocol, users will need new hardware, both at the router and device level. Devices tend to follow the arrival of new router hardware, so don’t expect to see Wi-Fi 6E in your favorite IoT connected devices, such as a smart door lock or thermostat, until the first half of 2021. What’s more, users’ current devices and their existing routers will not be upgradeable.

Early adopters who are intrigued with the potential of Wi-Fi 6E should expect to pay more for supported routers, as manufacturers are fond of extracting as much price premium and profitability from their latest generation. This follows the pricing cadence of every major wireless standard introduction over the past decade, from 802.11ac (which was introduced in 2008) to today’s Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax).

Fast-forwarding to the latter part of 2021, Wi-Fi 6E should make wireless connectivity more reliable, robust, and hassle-free. As mmWave-based 5G becomes more pervasive over the next 24 months and competes to replace fiber and cable as the main connectivity “pipe” into the home, Wi-Fi 6E should be a welcome addition, It’s capable of handling the scores of connected devices that will be cropping up in the typical smart home, and for that reason, Wi-Fi 6E can’t arrive soon enough.

+ posts
Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.