Wi-Fi 6/6E: 5 Advantages & 4 Challenges It Can’t Solve On Its Own
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted in May 2021, but has been updated to include the latest information, including information about Wi-Fi 6E.
Many vendors are incorporating Wi-Fi 6 (also known as wireless standard 802.11ax) into their access points (APs) and hardware. You may be wondering what benefits and advantages Wi-Fi 6 offers. You may also have heard of Wi-Fi 6E and be wondering about the differences between the two.
As an IT engineer at Kelser Corporation, I hear these questions frequently. This article will provide an overview of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.
Here’s a brief look at the benefits we’ll explore in this article:
- Increased AP Capacity
- Greater Channel Width
- More Efficient Bandwidth Sharing
- Wi-Fi Sleeping
- Backward Compatibility
As I mentioned, I answer questions like this from our customers every day. But I’m not here to talk about Kelser.
While it is true that Kelser works with hundreds of customers to provide a broad range of managed IT support services, we also know that one company can’t possibly provide the best solution for every organization. So, we take a different approach than other providers.
Rather than tell you how great we are, we provide informative, unbiased articles (like this one) about subjects that matter to business leaders like you.
We figure that’s what you really care about anyway, right?
After reading this article, you’ll know the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, how it differs from Wi-Fi 6E, and the challenges Wi-Fi 6/6E won’t solve for your organization. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to confidently decide whether Wi-Fi 6/6e is the right solution for you.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
In 2019, Wi-Fi 6 was introduced as the latest iteration of Wi-Fi technology. It promised faster speeds (almost 3x faster than Wi-Fi 5) and improved the speed available when several devices operate on one network by communicating with multiple users at the same time (rather than in sequence).
These improvements were due to technology advancements including:
- upgraded MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output) that doubles the number of devices access point radios can communicate with and
- new OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access) that allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
What Is Wi-Fi 6E?
According to Intel, Wi-Fi 6E is “the next step in Wi-Fi evolution [that] will enhance wireless performance by opening up new, exclusive channels never before available for unlicensed Wi-Fi use.”
Intel goes on to explain that the last three generations of wireless technology have used two signal bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. As more devices and networks have been added, both bands have become crowded with traffic and interference.
An article in PC Magazine explains that in April of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to open up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, giving APs significantly more airwaves to use to broadcast Wi-Fi signals.
The article goes on to say that opening of the 6 GHz band is the biggest spectrum addition to Wi-Fi since 1989, essentially quadrupling the airwaves available for routers and smart devices, which means less signal interference.
How Do Wi-Fi 6 and 6E Compare?
The three top advantages to Wi-Fi 6E according to Intel are: speed, latency and interference.
According to Intel, the “most impactful difference is that Wi-Fi 6E devices use a dedicated 6E spectrum with up to seven additional 160 MHz channels while Wi-Fi 6 devices share the same congested spectrum—and only two 160 MHz channels—with other legacy Wi-Fi 4, 5, and 6 devices.”
Intel explains that while Wi-Fi 6 devices cannot take advantage of the 6E spectrum, Wi-Fi 6E devices are backward compatible and can connect to Wi-Fi 4, 5, and 6 networks when needed.
According to Intel, Wi-Fi 6E enables speeds up to 6x faster than Intel® Wi-Fi 5 on managed networks and nearly 3x faster than Wi-Fi 5 for home and consumer use.
According to Intel, using the unshared 6E spectrum, Wi-Fi 6E reduces the time it takes for data to pass from one point on a network to another by 75 percent (from Wi-Fi 5). This reduces lag time for applications like videoconferencing and gaming.
Intel also reports that Wi-Fi 6E devices provide “greater reliability and efficiency” due to the exclusive 6 GHz spectrum they use, which is “not impacted by legacy device traffic.”
Top 5 Benefits Of Wi-Fi 6/6E
Here’s where we dig into the details about the benefits that Wi-Fi 6/6E offers.
1. Increased AP Capacity
Several features make Wi-Fi 6/6E better suited to handle the demands of multiple mobile devices without sacrificing performance.
This is increasingly important as the workforce is more mobile than ever before and as remote work increases in popularity. Most employees in the workforce today have a workstation, a mobile device and possibly other smart devices and accessories.
In industries like advanced manufacturing or warehousing, there is also an ever-expanding number of sensors, scanners, and other equipment to consider.
In addition, the increased use of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone systems as well as video for real-time communication has increased exponentially.
The expanded AP capacity available with the Wi-Fi 6/6E standard ensures a stable level of usability for all your organization’s devices, which ensures users don’t experience jitter, lag, or frozen audio and video communications.
2. Greater Channel Width
One of the concepts that affect speed is channel width.
With 5 GHz channels you can aggregate 20 MHz channels into 40 MHz and 80 MHz channels, yielding higher speeds.
With Wi-Fi 6, you can reach 160 MHz channels, but that spectrum is limited. In other words, 160 MHz may only work consistently in a single AP environment such as a home network. If you try to run multiple APs at 160 MHz, you will surely see interference, and it won’t work as well as it might look on paper.
Having said that, even in an environment with multiple APs, Wi-Fi 6/6E still offers improvements by auto-channel switching between 20, 40, 80, and 160 MHz as the environment allows. This provides bandwidth when needed and then backs off to 20 or 40 MHz as network demands change.
And, as mentioned earlier, Wi-Fi 6E devices use a dedicated 6E spectrum providing access to up to seven additional 160 MHz channels.
3. More Efficient Bandwidth Sharing
Wi-Fi 6/6E provides other efficiencies to devices on the network, resulting in better speeds.
For example, Wi-Fi 6/6E has made advancements in the number of antennas it can support, using a maximum configuration of 8x8:8 (which identifies the number of AP transmit and receive antennas and the number of spatial streams.)
More antennas allow for more concurrent communication, improving speeds, and even allowing multiple users to “talk” at the same time using the MU-MIMO technology we discussed earlier.
Older standards and APs were limited to one user “talking” at a time.
The 802.11ax standard does a better job of splitting up user time and “scheduling” the data which makes for a better end-user experience and capacity improvements.
Much like increases to speeds for the 802.11n and 802.11ac standards due to better signal coding and modulation, Wi-Fi 6/6E boasts improvements to modulation using OFDMA, as discussed earlier.
OFDMA allows a mixture of users/devices at various needs and speeds to better share bandwidth. Modulation techniques provide for another increase in speed provided that the signal is clean, and the user is close to the AP.
These improvements result in improved performance and capacity. Though your users don’t know it, they’re in less competition with the person next to them for bandwidth with Wi-Fi 6/6E.
4. Wi-Fi Sleeping
With previous wireless standards, devices were either connected or they weren’t; completely binary.
Wi-Fi 6/6E can effectively put the Wi-Fi of a device to “sleep” when it’s not being used, freeing up bandwidth and possibly leading to greater battery life in devices that support Wi-Fi 6/6E.
5. Backward Compatible
The 802.11ax standard itself and the APs supporting it are backward compatible.
This means that devices using 802.11 ac, n, g, b, and a should be good to go. However, it is always good to test out your devices in advance with your AP of choice to make sure there aren’t any issues. This is true especially for older b devices, such as scan guns.
Keep in mind, too, that outdated standards, especially 802.11b, create terrible bottlenecks, and do not allow you to fully experience all the benefits of the new Wi-Fi 6/6E features.
4 Challenges Wi-Fi 6/6E Won’t Solve On Its Own
Wi-Fi 6/6E offers features that make it a marked improvement over previous wireless standards rather than an incremental bump, but there are issues that Wi-Fi 6/6E alone won’t solve:
- external speed & performance
- improving functionality of unsupported devices
For a more detailed look at these challenges, read this article: 4 Challenges Wi-Fi 6/6E Won’t Solve On Its Own.
In the long run, ensuring that upgraded APs support Wi-Fi 6/6E will improve the performance of your IT environment today and will provide an additional functionality boost when you refresh end-user devices to Wi-Fi 6/6E compatible models in the future.
Is Wi-Fi 6/6E Right For You?
After reading this article, you have the information to decide whether now is the right time for you to invest in Wi-Fi 6/6E or not. Only you can decide.
In an ideal world, everyone would switch to Wi-Fi 6/6E APs and devices to take advantage of all the improvements it offers. But in the real world, we know that businesses face financial and scheduling challenges (among other things).
Because technology changes rapidly, I generally encourage customers who are replacing gear to invest in the latest technology available. This ensures that as they move forward in their lifecycle replacement, every aspect of their IT environment continues to reap the latest advancements.
A word of advice though when considering Wi-Fi 6/6E. As we’ve mentioned, it holds a lot of potential and boasts some great features, but simply going out and buying Wi-Fi 6/6E capable hardware could be a costly mistake without planning first.
To ensure that your investment is a wise one, I’d encourage you to conduct a site survey first.
This will provide important insight about your environment, help you develop a plan that best serves end-users, and identify where APs should be placed for optimal coverage (Wi-Fi 6/6E capable or otherwise).
Wireless network planning and architecture are more of a science than an art. I’ve performed numerous site surveys with Kelser and seen it all.
Sometimes there are too many APs, sometimes too few. APs are located too close together, or too far apart. Or APs are placed in a way that prevents them from working to their full potential.
A site survey can ensure that you don’t make costly mistakes!
Even small issues like the ones we’ve identified above can dramatically impact your wireless performance, the experience of users, and the costs to run and maintain your environment.
At Kelser, our managed IT support includes advice from IT experts who can help you optimize your IT environment. While we know managed IT support isn’t the answer for everyone, it could be the solution you are looking for.
Read this article to learn more about managed IT support: What Is Managed IT? What’s Included? What Does It Cost?