For many users, wireless networks have become the primary means of connecting to networks and accessing the wider internet. In office spaces, for example, employees will no longer accept being tethered to a desk via a wired connection. Instead, trends like hot-desking and greater use of devices like tablets and smartphones demand a quality wireless signal that reaches every part of a building.
Elsewhere, deployments such as factories and warehouses are increasingly dependent on handheld gadgets and Internet of Things sensors to deliver data to users quickly, while in public spaces, wireless connectivity is now an essential part of the experience for any visitor.
However, this growing demand creates a range of challenges for the deployers who are tasked with ensuring the underlying infrastructure - from cabling to switches and access points - is able to cope with the pressures today's systems face. With more users accessing more data than ever, the risk of slowdowns and bottlenecks will be a serious issue that must be addressed.
What Wi-Fi 6 offers
A key answer to these challenges is the introduction of the Wi-Fi 6 standard, or 802.11ax as it is more formally known. This stands to offer a number of advantages over the previous 802.11ac standard - now retroactively labelled as Wi-Fi 5 by the Wi-Fi Alliance - such as faster speeds and, importantly, much greater bandwidth that will allow far more devices to connect at once.
With the Wi-Fi 5 standard, access points can only communicate with a single device at a time, which limits the number of connections that can be made before bottlenecks start to appear. Wi-Fi 6, however, offers improved Multi User Multiple In/Multiple Out (MU-MIMO) technology that uses multiple antennas to talk to several end-user devices at once, resulting in a faster, smoother experience for everyone.
However, Wi-Fi 6 alone may not be enough for users to meet the increasing wireless demands of today's environment, which is why more regulators around the world are looking to extend the amount of spectrum available to these services, and in particular by opening up the 6GHz band.
Extending the Wi-Fi spectrum with 6GHz
In the UK, Ofcom is currently undertaking a consultation on plans to make additional Wi-Fi spectrum available in this band without the need for a licence. The proposals were published on January 17th and will be open for comment until March 20th.
The regulator explained: "These measures are aimed at helping people to get a more reliable Wi-Fi connection. This will help them to benefit from increasingly popular technology such as ultra-high definition streaming, virtual reality and augmented reality."
Ofcom's consultation noted that making the low end of this spectrum band more freely available will also enable the use of outdoor very low power (VLP) applications. It added this would improve performance by reducing congestion in existing bands and enabling the
development of new, higher bandwidth applications.
In order to make the most of this spectrum when it becomes available, deployers will need compatible hardware, which is why the Wi-Fi Alliance has also unveiled plans to help buyers identify this equipment.
At the start of 2020, the industry body announced it would be introducing new terminology to help distinguish Wi-Fi 6 devices that are capable of operating on the 6GHz spectrum, with these to be known as Wi-Fi 6E products.
The organisation noted that once 6GHz becomes available, companies will quickly move forward to bring products to market, with the first wave set to include consumer access points and smartphones, followed by enterprise-grade access points.
What 6Hz WiFi could mean for users
There are expected to be a wide range of use cases that are set to benefit from Wi-Fi 6 devices using the 6GHz band, with both consumer and industrial applications likely to emerge.
For instance, the Wi-Fi Alliance suggested industrial environments will see strong adoption of Wi-Fi 6E to deliver applications such as machine analytics, remote maintenance and virtual employee training. Elsewhere, Wi-Fi 6E will utilise 6GHz to deliver augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) use cases for consumer, enterprise and industrial environments.
Commenting on the new spectrum, Charles Cheevers, chief technology officer for home networks at CommScope, said Wi-Fi 6E will ensure that users are able to make immediate use of the promised benefits of Wi-Fi 6, providing a key platform for the next phase of lower latency and deterministic Wi-Fi services.
He added: "We see these expanded capabilities seeding a new generation of high-speed laptops and tablets, applications around Wi-Fi 6E wireless mesh and high-quality video distribution in 8K and VR, and new, time-sensitive services."