What is it and how is it different from Wi-Fi 6?

A cityscape with an illustration of Wi-Fi connections.
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Wi-Fi 6 hardware is now commonplace and there is a good chance you have a Wi-Fi 6 network. But people are already talking about something new: Wi-Fi 6E, which promises to reduce Wi-Fi congestion further.

Update: We originally wrote this article in January 2020. On April 23, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission voted to open the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. A few Wi-Fi 6E hardware devices began to appear in 2021. On December 28, 2021, a court ruling reiterated the approval and paved the way for Wi-Fi 6E in the United States. Not all countries have made the same decision, so Wi-Fi 6E still faces regulatory barriers in some countries.

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6 and previous generations of Wi-Fi use the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radio bands. A “Wi-Fi 6E” device is one that is also capable of operating on the 6 GHz band.

The 6 GHz spectrum should work in the same way as WiFi 6 over 5 GHz, but offers additional non-overlapping channels. As the Wi-Fi Alliance puts it, Wi-Fi 6E allows for “14 additional 80 MHz channels and 7 additional 160 MHz channels.” These channels would not overlap, which would help reduce congestion, especially in areas where many networks are in operation.

All devices communicating on the 6 GHz spectrum would also be Wi-Fi 6 devices. There would be no older devices using standards like Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). All devices on the 6 GHz channels speak the same language and can use Wi-Fi 6’s new congestion-reducing features.

In other words, Wi-Fi 6E Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) is over 6 GHz.

RELATED: Wi-Fi 6: What is different and why it matters

Wi-Fi over 6 GHz requires new devices

Wi-Fi 6E devices will be backward compatible with Wi-Fi 6 and previous Wi-Fi standards. But to take advantage of the new 6 GHz channels in Wi-Fi 6E, you need devices that support it. In other words, you will only use Wi-Fi 6E when pairing a Wi-Fi 6E-enabled client device (such as a laptop or smartphone) and a WI-Fi 6E-enabled access point.

For example, even if you have a lot of Wi-Fi 6 devices and a Wi-Fi 6E-enabled router, none of your devices will communicate over Wi-FI 6E. They will all use Wi-Fi 6 on the typical 5 GHz or 2.4 GHz channels.

RELATED: 5 GHz Wi-Fi is not always better than 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi 6E Requires regulatory approval

If 6 GHz is so useful, why not use existing Wi-Fi standards already? Well, they could not. Regulators did not allow Wi-Fi to use the 6 GHz band, but reserved it for other purposes instead.

Back in October 2018, the US Federal Communications Commission proposed offering 6 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi and other “unlicensed” applications. It did not happen right away and Wi-Fi 6E started to take shape before its regulatory approval. On April 23, 2020, the FCC voted to open the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E and other applications later in 2020, allowing Wi-Fi 6E devices to be approved for launch in the United States.

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s announcement of Wi-Fi 6E before CES 2020 recognizes this and refers to 6 GHz as “an important part of the unlicensed spectrum that may soon be made available by regulators worldwide.” Note the word “can” rather than the word “will” – it’s up to the authorities, not the industry.

When will Wi-Fi 6E hardware be available?

FCC Headquarters in Washington, DC.
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The Wi-Fi Alliance also states that “Wi-Fi 6E devices are expected to become available soon after 6 GHz regulatory approvals.”

In early 2022, Wi-Fi 6E hardware will certainly become more common. By the end of 2021, you could already buy routers and mesh networking systems from brands like Asus with Wi-Fi 6E. Several manufacturers like Netgear and TP-Link announced more Wi-Fi 6E routers at CES 2022. Android phones like Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Google Pixel 6 support Wi-Fi 6E, though no Apple devices have Wi-Fi 6E support yet.

Intel is also promoting Wi-Fi 6E, which it calls “GIG +”. As Intel continues to add this feature to its manufacturers’ platforms, more and more Intel-powered laptops should emerge with Wi-Fi 6E support.

Even before the approval, the industry was already eager for regulators to allow Wi-Fi 6. During CES 2020, Broadcom announced several system-on-a-chip products that router manufacturers can purchase to create Wi-Fi 6E-enabled access points.

Do not wait for Wi-Fi 6E: Wi-Fi 6 is fantastic

In technology, there is always something new on the horizon. For Wi-Fi right now, it’s Wi-Fi 6E.

Many Wi-Fi 6 devices, such as routers, laptops, smartphones, are already for sale. Wi-Fi 6 is not an extreme upgrade in terms of speed, but it will lead to faster Wi-Fi along with less wireless congestion and maybe even extended battery life for your devices.

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi 6E is not as widespread. You can purchase a Wi-Fi 6E router to be future-proof, but most wireless devices you want to connect to your router do not yet support Wi-Fi 6E. For example, in early 2022, no Apple devices will support Wi-Fi 6E, even though they do support Wi-Fi 6.

Even after you can purchase Wi-Fi 6E-enabled devices, the biggest benefit will be reduced congestion through additional wireless channels. That’s a great long-term goal, but we do not think it’s worth enduring if you’re considering upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 gear.

There is a good chance that new devices you buy have Wi-Fi 6. We definitely recommend that you at least buy a Wi-Fi 6 router if you have not already done so. You will be able to utilize all of your Wi-Fi 6 devices properly. But you probably won’t get Wi-Fi 6E on many devices yet. It is fine. Wi-Fi 6E sounds good, but it’s not common yet.

RELATED: Why your next router should be Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6E is not WiGig

Note that the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E is different from the 60 GHz band that WiGig will benefit from. Wi-Fi 6E’s 6 GHz will work in the same way as Wi-Fi’s 5 GHz, while WiGig is ideal for faster data transfer speeds over shorter distances.

RELATED: What is WiGig and how is it different from Wi-Fi 6?

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