One of the key features of the Wi-Fi 6 standard, introduced last year, is the broadened operation bandwidth from 1 to 6 GHz band. The use of 6 GHz was not authorized at the time of launch of many of the early WiFi 6 certified devices. However, this has changed with the recent FCC’s approval to make the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use in the United States. In other words, the authorizations allow for more open airwaves that can be used by future routers to broadcast Wi-Fi signals.
Now that Wi-Fi devices can broadcast and receive the 6 GHz band, Wi-Fi Alliance has introduced Wi-Fi 6E, a new terminology to distinguish the devices certified for operating in the 6 GHz band. Wi-Fi 6E devices will remain backwards compatible. Chipmakers, including Qualcomm and Broadcom have already started shipping Wi-Fi 6E systems that are expected to feature in next-gen devices by the end of 2020.
The new 6GHz band provides 1200MHz of additional bandwidth from 5.9 GHz to 7.1 GHz. This coverage allows Wi-Fi 6E devices to use 7 different 160 MHz channels, or 14 new 80 MHz channels, resulting in significantly faster real-world performance. The additional spectrum is expected to improve capacity, performance and support for high-bandwidth applications that require faster data throughput, such as high-definition video streaming and virtual reality.
The technologies introduced in Wi-Fi 6, such as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) signal modulation, beamforming, and Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) are similar to those used in 5G communication technology. Historically, telecommunication network providers have used these technologies to offload data carried on the cellular bands through the use of small/femto cells, Wi-Fi/WiMax/terrestrial networks (LAN), and connected broadband networks. The opening of the 6 GHz spectrum to WiFi, will allow for more seamless offloading from cellular band to WiFi networks. It is also conceivable that the deployments may use both networks in an interdependent manner.
Despite the use of similar underlying technologies for 5G and Wi-Fi 6, one should not conclude that the networks are merging or that one is a winner over the other. The two technologies are designed for different use case scenarios and are more likely to continue to do so in the near future. Both networks are built to achieve high throughput, low latency, and high capacity. Wi-Fi 6 is designed to provide better coverage for short-range communications and is best suited for indoor usage, whereas 5G is designed for long-range communication and is better suited for outdoor applications.
Additionally, it is important to note that a function of the 5G core called Access Traffic Steering, Switching & Splitting (ATSSS) was introduced for managing the convergence of the licensed and unlicensed networks in the 3GPP Release 16. In short, ATSSS allows a mobile device the option to select the best available network, whether 5G or Wi-Fi. It also allows a device connected to a first network (e.g. 5G) to be seamlessly handed over to a second network (e.g. Wi-Fi). Further, when neither 5G nor Wi-Fi provides a stable connection the device can split its communication traffic among both (network aggregation). The introduction of the ATSSS feature along with the increased performance of the Wi-Fi 6E will result in more seamless connectivity and true mobility to the consumer.
You can read more about the WiFi 6 technology landscape from our earlier coverage.