6 GHz band: The stage is set for Wi-Fi 6E

Around 15 years ago, for the last time spectrum was released for Wi-Fi in Europe. A lot has happened on the wireless market since then: Rapidly growing numbers of Wi-Fi devices such as tablets and smartphones have become a part of everyday life. Wi-Fi is now an indispensable way of transporting data and services and, considering the increasing use, we need more channels in the long term.

The USA reacted appropriately this year by releasing 1,200 MHz in the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi. The good news: Europe and the rest of the world are now following suit! The European Commission is finally preparing to release the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E in 2021. Thus, let’s take a closer look at the advantages of the long overdue release of more spectrum.

Why do we need more spectrum for Wi-Fi?

On the one hand, the increased demand for data volumes can only be satisfied to a limited extent with the currently available spectrum. Especially if more latency-critical applications such as Virtual/Augmented Reality (VR/AR) want to send and receive large amounts of data quickly in the future. Thus, we are now at a point where the spectrum severely limits the capacity and quality of experience. The planned release of additional channels brings the advantages of low latencies and Internet speeds of several Gbps. Furthermore, the broader spectrum allows significantly more devices to use the high-speed wireless Internet at the same time.

On the other hand, there is a long-term politically motivated agenda behind the European Commission’s plan: The Gigabit Society 2025. In Wi-Fi we can only achieve the throughput of 1 Gbps if we use at least 80 MHz wide channels for a Wi-Fi 6 client (2 streams / antennas assumed). However, especially in the enterprise environment (offices, shopping malls, stadiums, airports, etc.) we often configure the lowest channel bandwidths (20/40 MHz) in order to be able to reuse the existing channels frequently (keyword: co-channel interference). So, it is clear that the gigabit, available via WAN connection, can only be exploited with at least 80 MHz channels

A look at the current spectrum, however, shows that there is no 80 MHz channel at all in the 2.4 GHz band and a very distorted picture prevails in the 5 GHz band. Without any RADAR-restrictions, there is only one 80 MHz channel in the 5 GHz band over the channels 36 – 48, which is also the channel dominated by practically all 5 GHz capable devices. In addition, there are three more 80 MHz channels, for which “Dynamic Frequency Selection” (DFS) is required. Wi-Fi is only a “co-user” on these channels and must keep the channel free when RADAR systems are present. Due to this restriction, some devices, access points and clients only work on the DFS-free channels.

What spectrum is now at stake?

The 6 GHz band, provided for Wi-Fi by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), extends over 1,200 MHz. It starts at 5.925 MHz and ends at 7.125 MHz. So far, we have the following spectrum available for Wi-Fi in Europe:

  • 2.4 GHz: with max. TX power of 100mW (20 dBm) on channels 1 – 13: 2.301 – 2.483 MHz (82 MHz)
  • 5 GHz: 5.170 – 5.875 MHz (520 MHz usable)
    • 5 GHz sub-band 1 with max. TX power of 200mW (23 dBm) on channels 36 – 64: 5.170 – 5.330 MHz (160 MHz)
    • 5 GHz sub-band 2 with max. TX power of 1000mW (30 dBm) on channels 100 – 140: 5.490 – 5. 710 MHz (220 MHz)
    • 5 GHz sub-band-3 with max. TX power of 25mW (14 dBm) on channels 149 – 173: 5.735 – 5.875 MHz (140 MHz)

In Europe, the release of the lower 500 MHz, i.e. from 5.925 – 6.425 MHz, is currently being negotiated. Since a certain separation (20 MHz in total) must still be maintained to the services in contiguous bands for protection, we probably have 480 MHz available for Wi-Fi channels. Yet, as each country has different interests and existing installations in 6 GHz, the release of spectrum in Europe is characterized by many, intensive negotiations. As a result, the negotiations are generally slower and more fragmented than within, for example, the FCC for the USA.

The timetable for Wi-Fi 6E

So what happens next? Last week the ECC approved the draft of the working group and things will now proceed in two directions. Non-EU countries can transfer the technical and regulatory requirements into their national law, although the requirements are not binding and do not have to be implemented.

At the EU level, the ECC’s proposal must first be waved through by the EU Commission. That could happen as early as March 2021. About two months later—probably in May—the legal details will then be published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). From this point in time, EU member states are obliged to transfer the directive into national law within six months.

Challenges ahead?

The new frequency band will be equipped with an independent radio module similar to the 2.4 GHz & 5 GHz bands. Thus, access points will need three instead of two radio modules in the future. This is likely to have an impact on costs, heat generation and power consumption. New antennas optimized for the 6 GHz band will also be required.

The question remains: When will the first clients appear? Even if the first devices enter the market starting Q1 2021, this does not mean that we will see the products in all areas. Unlike the move from Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), this is not just a RF module upgrade. Wi-Fi 6E or 6 GHz is an additional wireless module, similar to 2.4 GHz & 5 GHz. Meaning: Additional radio modules are associated with additional costs.

Nevertheless, we at LANCOM continue to work intensively on suitable new access points. Even if it takes some time for Wi-Fi 6E clients to become widespread—the first Wi-Fi 6E-capable Apple iPhones & iPads are expected for autumn 2021 at the earliest—we are deliberately focusing on a tri-band solution. This means that our Wi-Fi 6E access points will be transmitting in the 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz bands to enable the broad and flexible use of all radio bands. The aim is to launch a product shortly after the release of the 6 GHz spectrum.

The author Philipp Ebbecke is Senior QM engineer (squad leader) and technical lead for spectrum and regulatory topics at LANCOM Systems.

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