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Wi-Fi 6E prepares to expand next-gen wireless connections to 6GHz band

The FCC may soon open up more than 1,200 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum in the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi -- and the industry is ready to take advantage of it.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants you to look for the Wi-Fi 6 logo.

Wi-Fi 6 is preparing to expand into the 6GHz band, which could be key for the development of bandwidth-heavy use cases such as 4K video streams and virtual/augmented reality applications.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Months after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated his support for plans to allocate more than 1,200 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum on the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi usage, the Wi-Fi industry is moving to hit the ground running with the additional real estate in 2020. To start, the Wi-Fi Alliance, fresh off of rebranding the newest generation of Wi-Fi technology as "Wi-Fi 6," is now introducing new "Wi-Fi 6E" terminology to help identify products capable of taking advantage of the additional spectrum.

The Wi-Fi Alliance says that 6GHz is well suited to facilitate Wi-Fi's continued growth due to its adjacency to the 5GHz band, where Wi-Fi already operates. The 6GHz band also offers accessibility to clear spectrum with less interference from legacy Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 5 devices on the 2.4GHz band, as well as a greater availability of wider channel sizes -- enough to accommodate 14 additional 80MHz channels and seven additional 160MHz channels.

"This band is currently populated by microwave services that are used to support utilities, public safety and wireless backhaul," said Pai. "But studies have shown that sharing this band with unlicensed operations is feasible, and can put massive amounts of new spectrum into the hands of consumers."

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

With a total frequency range of 1,200MHz -- up from 70MHz on the 2.4GHz band and 500MHz on the 5GHz band -- the 6GHz band could play a key role in the development of high-bandwidth applications that require faster data throughput, like 4K video streams and virtual reality.

"6GHz will help address the growing need for Wi-Fi spectrum capacity to ensure Wi-Fi users continue to receive the same great user experience with their devices," said Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. "Wi-Fi Alliance is introducing Wi-Fi 6E now to ensure the industry aligns on common terminology, allowing Wi-Fi users to identify devices that support 6GHz operation as the spectrum becomes available."

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The Wi-Fi Alliance cites industry analysts who see a clear path forward for the 6GHz band, and broad industry support for the new spectral allocation would seem to back that up.

"If the regulatory landscape permits, we expect companies to move forward aggressively with products that operate in 6GHz because they understand the tremendous value brought to their customers by this portion of unlicensed spectrum," said Phil Solis, research director at IDC.

"The 6GHz band will perhaps be the most disruptive boon for Wi-Fi users in the last 20 years," said Vijay Nagarajan, vice president, Wireless Communications and Connectivity Division at Broadcom. "This swath of spectrum, when coupled with Wi-Fi, will power new consumer experiences on smartphones, AR/VR devices and wearables we haven't even yet invented."

"The ground-breaking potential of extending the already transformative characteristics of Wi-Fi 6 into the 6GHz band is hard to overstate," says Rahul Patel, senior vice president and general manager, Connectivity & Networking at Qualcomm. "We applaud Wi-Fi Alliance's leadership in unleashing a new era of high-speed, low-latency Wi-Fi 6 experiences for the 6GHz band."

The Wi-Fi Alliance is currently working on interoperability testing for new, Wi-Fi 6E connections, and predicts that consumer-grade access points and smart phones will be among the first devices to jump on board once regulators make the additional spectrum available.