FCC unlocks a massive amount of bandwidth for next-gen Wi-Fi devices

April's unanimous vote opens up 1,200MHz of bandwidth in the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi use. New devices that can take advantage are coming later this year.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
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Ry Crist
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In a unanimous vote on April 23, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a proposal that opens the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. Doing so frees up more than 1,200MHz of additional bandwidth for next-gen Wi-Fi 6E devices with antennas and chipsets capable of tapping into the extra spectrum. To put that in perspective, the 2.4GHz band, one of the two already allocated for Wi-Fi, offers just 70MHz of bandwidth.

"To accommodate that increase in Wi-Fi demand, the FCC is aiming to increase the supply of Wi-Fi spectrum with our boldest initiative yet: making the entire 6GHz band available for unlicensed use," reads the FCC's announcement of the plan to vote. "By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi almost by a factor of five."

The FCC went on to call the move a benefit to consumers, and one that will "further our leadership in next-generation wireless technologies, including 5G." An industry-funded study by Columbia professor Raul Katz backs that claim up, and suggests that the move could generate more than $180 billion in US revenue by 2025.

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With more than twice as much bandwidth as the 5GHz band used by Wi-Fi devices today, the 6GHz band can accommodate up to seven 160MHz channels at once. Latency stands to be a lot lower on the 6GHz band too, because there aren't any existing, older-gen Wi-Fi devices operating in that spectrum to slow things down. That gives the 6GHz band the potential to serve as an exclusive, multilane expressway for Wi-Fi devices equipped to take advantage, all of them using Wi-Fi 6, the newest, fastest and most efficient version of Wi-Fi.

In a statement released after the vote, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai pointed to the emergence of Wi-Fi 6 as a key motivator behind the decision.

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"To realize that potential, we need faster, stronger Wi-Fi networks," Pai wrote. "But in order to fully take advantage of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, we need to make more midband spectrum available for unlicensed use. It's been a long, long time since we did that and consumers deserve it."

The vote opening the 6GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use comes several months after Pai initially signaled his support for the move.  

Watch this: Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-FI 6E: Here's the difference in three minutes

"Today's vote lays the groundwork for tech companies to offer next-generation connectivity at a time when we need it most," says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association. "Opening the 6GHz band means more spectrum available to power the Wi-Fi devices we rely on for working, socializing and even getting medical treatment remotely."


New Wi-FI 6E chipsets for routers and mobile devices are already set to make their way into next-gen devices.


The Wi-Fi industry has signaled strong support for the move, as well. In January, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced the new Wi-Fi 6E designation for devices equipped to operate in that 6GHz spectrum. Broadcom soon followed suit with Wi-Fi 6E chipsets for things like access points and mobile phones, and expects that manufacturers will move quickly to get those chips into new devices in the coming months.

"We're expecting the first set of devices to come to market in the second half of this year," said Vijay Nagarajan, vice president of marketing for Broadcom's wireless communications and connectivity division. "You'll see a whole slew of devices, both on the infrastructure side and on the client side, and much more in a much more accelerated manner in 2021."

"This is the most substantive decision any Commission has made on unlicensed spectrum in almost 25 years, and one that will empower our wireless experiences for the next 20 years," Nagarajan adds, calling today's vote "a definitive moment in US wireless history."

"Wi-Fi Alliance and its members are ready to deliver new 6GHz use cases and urge the Commission to support the Chairman's proposal," the industry group said in a statement.

"By making 6GHz available for unlicensed use, the FCC has secured the future of Wi-Fi," said Wi-Fi Alliance President and CEO Edgar Figueroa in a statement after the vote.

Qualcomm, too, signaled its readiness to jump into 6GHz waters.

"Qualcomm fully supports the FCC's plan to allocate the 6GHz band for advanced unlicensed operations," said Dean Brenner, the company's senior vice president for spectrum strategy and technology policy. "In February, we demonstrated a full suite of Wi Fi 6E products ready to start using this large new swath of spectrum."

"Across the country, Wi-Fi networks on unlicensed spectrum are supporting first responders, hospitals, telehealth, remote learning and remote work at unprecedented levels," says Chuck Robbins, chairman and CEO of Cisco. "Chairman Pai's decision to unleash the full potential of Wi-Fi alongside 5G could not come at a more important time."

Apple as well supported the move. "We applaud the FCC's decision to open up the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi and other uses," the company said in a statement. "It sets the course for the next generation of Wi-Fi networks and will help us to create innovative, new product experiences for our customers."  

"This is clearly one the most important wireless announcements in a long time," Facebook's Director of Wireless Technologies Bruno Cendón tweeted, adding that the 6GHz band will be a "booster" for AR/VR applications.

Meet the Wi-Fi 6 routers that support 802.11ax

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Eric McLaughlin, vice president of the client computing group and general manager of the wireless solutions group at Intel agreed that we'll see new Wi-Fi 6E devices by the end of 2020, and notes that some in the industry have been preparing for the 6GHz age for years.

"Intel, Broadcom and other industry leaders made a risk call almost two years ago to start developing and spending millions of dollars on getting products ready," McLaughlin said.

Much of the work that's been done has gone toward demonstrating that unlicensed Wi-Fi usage wouldn't interfere with the small amount of existing traffic on the 6GHz band -- things like emergency broadcasts and microwave transmissions.

"What they're talking about is creating a brand new band for Wi-Fi," says Broadcom government affairs director Chris Szymanski. "That hasn't been done before. And so this is really one of the most heavily studied proceedings that I've seen, I mean, thousands of pages of technical studies. It was important for the FCC to get it right."

In the end, McLaughlin cites the demonstrated potential for the 6GHz band to make a widespread impact on the quality of our connections as the key factor that helped the move pick up momentum within the FCC.

"There's nobody that doesn't use Wi-Fi in some shape or form today," McLaughlin said. "That's one of the reasons we're so behind this. It's not just a product thing for us, it's that everyone can benefit, and that's a great use of these kinds of assets."