The Rollout of Wi-Fi 6E-Compatible Devices Has (Slowly) Begun
The CES 2021 stage has debuted the hardware of some of the first Wi-Fi 6E devices. What are the benefits and challenges of this new connectivity protocol?
Wi-Fi 6E has been a hot topic at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), following the FCC's allocation of a higher bandwidth of 1,200 MHz. That extra 1,200 MHz of bandwidth will make a market difference for newer devices.
The Nighthawk Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6E Router presented at CES 2021. Image used courtesy of NETGEAR
Since Wi-Fi 6E utilizes the 6 GHz band’s added elbow room, compatible devices should perform faster with greater consistency—achieving or besting fiber-optic network speeds.
While Wi-Fi 6 brings immense benefits—including more than 40% speed improvements over Wi-Fi 5 and congestion mitigation—it remains an imperfect solution. Network connections occur over chunks of the wireless spectrum dubbed “channels.” Unfortunately, there are only about 400 MHz of bandwidth that channels may simultaneously share.
Proper hardware integration is central to making Wi-Fi 6E a reality. How are device makers and electrical engineers responding?
Benefits of Wi-Fi 6E Connectivity
Wi-Fi 6E effectively quadruples networking bandwidth in two distinct ways. First, it provides 1,600 MHz of total bandwidth. The 160 MHz channels can also replace their 40 MHz predecessors.
- Target wake time (TWT) improvements for improved battery life, allowing devices to sleep more often
- 1024-QAM for encoding more data at a given spectrum than previous solutions
- Transmit beamforming for higher data rates and network capacity
As with Wi-Fi 6, routers can split channels into subchannels for better load management. Connected devices won’t bog each other down. Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) will allow simultaneous connections and responses between devices and access points.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, a global governing body, must officially grant devices the Wi-Fi 6 Certified designation. However, packaging doesn’t have to display Wi-Fi 4, 5, or 6 labeling. The Wi-Fi Alliance merely suggests that manufacturers add this for greater transparency.
Part of the Wi-Fi Alliance's published list of Wi-Fi 6E-certified products. Image used courtesy of the Wi-Fi Alliance
For these reasons, Wi-Fi 6E isn’t a simple rebrand. It constitutes a new frontier for connectivity with measurable, positive impacts for consumers and engineers.
What Wi-Fi 6E Hardware Exists Now?
The 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has served as a launchpad for some promising Wi-Fi 6E-compatible products.
Some noteworthy Wi-Fi 6E routers discussed at CES include:
- Linksys' AXE8400 Wi-Fi 6E Mesh System
- NETGEAR’s Nighthawk RAXE500 Tri-Band Router
- TP-Link’s AX7800 Whole Home Mesh WiFi 6E System and Archer AX96 Tri-Band Router
- TP-Link’s AX5400 Whole Home Mesh WiFi 6E System with Smart Hub
- TP-Link’s AX11000 Tri-Band WiFi 6E Router
These offerings support all three Wi-Fi bands: 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz. The routers do require special components, like processors, to support Wi-Fi 6E. Because these routers support demanding tasks like 4K/8K streaming or gaming, their CPUs must support such tasks effectively. Antennas come pre-optimized for easy setup and better performance.
Intel’s AX210NGW modem hit the market as one of the first available Wi-Fi 6E modules. Since then, other fabricators have followed suit.
Broadcom was the first to offer a mainstream Wi-Fi 6E chip: the BCM4389. The chipset is an SoC that integrates Bluetooth functionality. It includes two main Wi-Fi radios and a third radio that’s both battery- and performance-optimized.
Broadcom's BCM4389. Image used courtesy of Broadcom
This chipset resides in Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra—which recently became the world’s first Wi-Fi 6E smartphone. The company regularly sells over 8 million devices annually. Broadcom’s chips will likely power tens of millions of other devices.
Qualcomm has introduced two similar chips: the FastConnect 6900 and 6700. Each promise speeds in excess of 3 Gbps and is designed to maximize performance and load management when multiple devices are simultaneously connected to a given network.
Potential Drawbacks of Wi-Fi 6E
Wi-Fi 6E suffers from the pitfalls of 5 GHz Wi-Fi: shorter range. It must be close to an access point or the router must be more centralized. EEs can help mitigate these issues by beamforming more effectively or improving antenna designs.
Depiction of the Wi-Fi 6E spectrum. Screenshot used courtesy of Qualcomm
Higher-frequency signals at lower energies, like those emitted from routers, don’t pass through solid objects as readily. Telecoms are currently facing similar challenges with urban 5G deployment.
Because the protocol is newer, it hasn’t yet become ubiquitous on the market. Fewer Wi-Fi 6E products mean less competition, which typically incentivizes higher pricing. These costs also rise since special components are needed to enable complete functionality—like multiple router antennas and bands.
Operating in 6E Mode
Wi-Fi 6E connectivity has two-way requirements. One’s phone and router, for example, must both be Wi-Fi 6E compatible to enjoy the technology’s core features. Otherwise, Wi-Fi connections will default to either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands.
That said, compatibility is primarily hardware driven. Routers require additional antennas to allow for MU-MIMO. These devices need Wi-Fi chips of their own. Phones and tablets require the same. These come either standalone or packaged as part of a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth SoC (as seen in some iPhones).
Laptops will require a specialized card to achieve this functionality. It’s also possible that accessories, like D-Link’s Wi-Fi 6 USB Adapter, will hit the market in the coming months. Whatever the case, engineers must choose chips that support the 6G band in its 1,200 MHz entirety—atop the existing 400 MHz spectrum.
Backward compatibility with older bands is essential. Wi-Fi 6E devices won’t be widespread for some time and may take months to hit shelves.
The Future of Wi-Fi 6E
Of the 338 million Wi-Fi 6 devices entering the 2021 market, analysts expect roughly 67.6 million to support the 6E standard by 2022. The same group believes that a number of supporting chipsets will emerge during that period. There may be a huge demand for these devices. This transition period will also give engineers a chance to work out any design kinks.