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Wi-Fi 6 (and 6E) to the Rescue?

April 28, 2020
More people than ever are WFH these days, and the strain on wireless connectivity is showing. It’s time to let the Wi-Fi 6 genie out of the bottle.

Working from home these days, are you? Well, that’s where many more of us than ever before find ourselves lately. For those who are new to the WFH game, it will likely become permanent.

The trend toward WFH means an explosion in the need for wireless connectivity, and that means even more reliance on Wi-Fi than ever. According to high-end Wi-Fi provider Plume Design, some 22.6 million people were active online during the workday prior to the coronavirus crisis. Now, about 46.2 million users are flooding the data pipelines.

Many of our devices and routers support the prevalent Wi-Fi 5 standard (a.k.a. “the standard formerly known as 802.11ac” now that the Wi-Fi Alliance has shifted to simply numbering the standards rather than using their unwieldy IEEE monikers; I, for one, applaud the move). But what if Wi-Fi 5’s 3.5-Gb/s maximum data rate, 256-QAM limit on subcarrier modulation, and four spatial streams can’t cut the mustard?

The Wi-Fi standard has already evolved beyond Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 is with us and promises to alleviate the growing connectivity logjam. It offers numerous improvements over its processor: With eight spatial streams and 1024-QAM subcarrier modulation, Wi-Fi 6 now sports a maximum data rate of 9.6 Gb/s.

Perhaps even more importantly, Wi-Fi 6 brings a much better approach to structuring and scheduling traffic. It supports modulation schemes like orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) as well as multiple-user MIMO on both uplink and downlink traffic. With more and more smart devices connecting to networks via Wi-Fi (think lightbulbs and thermostats), we can certainly benefit from a smarter approach to traffic control.

Moreover, there’s yet another hope for a remedy to our connectivity problems: more available spectrum. Wi-Fi today operates on about 70 MHz of the 2.4-GHz band and about 500 MHz of the 5.8-GHz band. But regulators in the U.S. and Europe are preparing to open the entire 6-GHz band to unlicensed traffic. Indeed, the FCC has unanimously voted to do so, adding some 1.2 GHz of bandwidth for the forthcoming Wi-Fi 6E (for Extended) edition of the evolving standard.

So, for those of us working from home, there’s hope for respite from the day when our iPhones aren’t competing with lightbulbs for a piece of the router’s attention.