The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to vote on whether to give Wi-Fi devices unlicensed access to the 6GHz frequency band. The vote is scheduled to take place on 23 April.
If the vote is passed, it will be the first time in 17 years that Wi-Fi is allocated additional spectrum for connectivity.
The Wi-Fi Alliance said this would be especially helpful at a time when Internet usage is peaking.
“Ensuring necessary unlicensed spectrum access is critical for Wi-Fi, which now more than ever keeps us connected, supports our communications infrastructure, and delivers major economic benefits,” it stated.
Despite having less than 600MHz of total spectrum to operate within, Wi-Fi carries large amounts of Internet traffic.
According to Cisco’s projections, nearly 60% of global mobile data traffic will be shifted to Wi-Fi by the year 2022.
A study commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, however, predicted an 800MHz shortfall in spectrum for Wi-Fi this year, climbing to 1.12GHz by 2025.
If the FCC decides that more spectrum must be opened, it will allow for an additional 1.2GHz within the 5.925 GHz to 7.125 GHz range to be used by Wi-Fi signals in the United States.
This could pave the way for similar processes to follow in other countries.
To understand the benefits that 6GHz Wi-Fi could bring, it is important to distinguish between the standard and frequency bands of Wi-Fi.
The standard describes the technological capabilities of Wi-Fi devices and networks, while the frequency band is the range of radio frequency spectrum within which the electromagnetic radio waves used to transfer data travel.
The latest Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ax Wi-Fi, which is also called Wi-Fi 6.
It was preceded by Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), which are available in many laptops and smartphones.
These devices are currently capable of using the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands to transfer Wi-Fi signals.
2.4GHz vs 5GHz
Because of the characteristics of the radio waves which operate in each band, 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi each have their own advantages and drawbacks.
As you move up the frequency spectrum, the lengths of waves get shorter and more frequent, meaning data can be transferred at a faster rate.
5GHz Wi-Fi can allow for data transferral of up to 1,300Mbps, where the 2.4GHz band supports speeds between 450Mbps and 600Mbps.
This comes at a cost to coverage and range though, primarily because shorter, higher frequency radio waves are not able to penetrate solid objects such as walls or floors as well as longer, lower frequency waves.
Further to this, 5GHz provides better bandwidth, as there are wider channels available within the 5GHz band. As the width of a channel increases, so does the data throughput potential.
Bands are divided into channels, each with a finite amount of frequency.
The 2.4GHz band is split into 11 channels, each 20MHz wide. For the 5GHz band, channels can number between 36 and 165, depending on how the channels are bonded.
This means channels in the 5GHz band consist of a combination of 20MHz, 40MHz, 80MHz and 160MHz channels. At its peak, the 5GHz band allows for two 160MHz channels.
The benefits of 6GHz
The 6GHz band will offer several benefits over 5GHz, including increased bandwidth, faster speeds, lower latency, and more precise location tracking.
According to Cisco, the 6GHz range has over twice the bandwidth of the 5GHz range, primarily because it is capable of carrying up to seven 160MHz channels.
“6GHz addresses Wi-Fi spectrum shortage by providing contiguous spectrum blocks to accommodate 14 additional 80MHz channels and seven additional 160MHz channels which are needed for high-bandwidth applications,” the Wi-Fi Alliance explained.
Recent Broadcom trials showed that the latest Wi-Fi devices capable of operating in the 6GHz band reached data throughput speeds of 2Gbps and maintained a consistent latency of two milliseconds.
The reduced latency is because there were no legacy devices on the 6GHz band that could slow transfer rates down.
Because of the higher frequency, however, range is reduced.
The 6GHz band will be especially useful to devices which support the Wi-Fi 6 standard.
While Wi-Fi offers a host of improved features, its connectivity capability is impeded by interference within the current frequency bands.
It has to compete with legacy Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 devices, in addition to other household items that operate in the 2.4GHz band, such as microwaves and cordless phones.
At the start of 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that Wi-Fi 6 devices which are capable of supporting the 6GHz band will be labeled as Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 4 and 5 devices will not be allowed to operate in the 6GHz band, which means the faster speeds and lower latency seen in the tests could be a reality once the band’s unlicensed use is approved.
The graph below from the Wireless Broadband Alliance illustrates the differences in data transfer performance between the 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz bands.