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Wi-Fi took some huge steps forward at CES 2020

Wi-Fi 6 was everywhere at the year's biggest tech showcase, with lots of intriguing new routers that cost less than you might expect.

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The new Arris Surfboard Max -- one of a handful of new Wi-Fi 6 mesh routers that debuted at CES 2020.

Arris
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

It was a predictably busy CES 2020 in the wireless networking category. Along with an abundance of 5G-related announcements, the show served as something of a coming out party for next-gen, Wi-Fi 6 routers, with lots of interesting new models aimed squarely at the masses -- and with price tags that seem surprisingly reasonable.

Mesh goes mainstream

Chief among these new routers were mesh systems, which use multiple devices to spread a speedy internet signal throughout all corners of your home. There were only a few systems like those that supported Wi-Fi 6 in 2019, and most of them cost at least $500. That changed at CES, with the arrival of several new systems at a fraction of that price. They include:

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The Asus RT-AX86U is a new, Wi-Fi 6 version of our favorite gaming router from last year.

Asus

Compare that with a year ago, when most mesh systems retailed for hundreds of dollars without support for Wi-Fi 6. We've come an awfully long way in the past 12 months.

Go-time for Wi-Fi 6

In addition to those dedicated mesh systems, D-Link also announced an entire 2020 lineup of standalone Wi-Fi 6 routers that can serve as the hubs for a mesh setup via the Wi-Fi Alliance's new EasyMesh standard. That standard lets you cobble together a mesh setup using devices from various brands. The least expensive of those routers is just $120. D-Link and TP-Link each have new Wi-Fi 6 range extenders planned for 2020, too.

Other interesting new standalone Wi-Fi 6 routers include the Asus RT-AX86U, which takes our favorite gaming router of 2019 and upgrades it with faster, more efficient Wi-Fi 6 features and speeds. Asus also has a new ZenWifi mesh setup at CES 2020 -- it doesn't support Wi-Fi 6, but it does include a built-in Alexa speaker. That might serve as an intriguing alternative to the Google Assistant-equipped Nest Wifi.

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Comcast's new xFi Advanced Gateway supports faster Wi-Fi 6 speeds, and it's now available to all Xfinity internet subscribers with plans 300Mbps and faster at no additional charge.

Comcast

Another good piece of Wi-Fi 6 news: Comcast will now offer Xfinity internet subscribers with plans 300Mbps and faster the option of upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 xFi Advanced Gateway at no additional charge. Even better, Comcast Xfinity's xFi Advanced Security service, which automatically protects devices on your network from online threats, is now a free service included with all plans. It used to cost $6 per month.

Wait, what's Wi-Fi 6E?

And then there's Wi-Fi 6E. A new designation announced by the Wi-Fi Alliance just ahead of CES, Wi-Fi 6E identifies devices that are capable of accessing bandwidth on the 6GHz band. With a total frequency range of 1,200MHz -- up from 70MHz on the 2.4GHz band and 500MHz on the 5GHz band -- that band could open up a lot of room for high-bandwidth applications like 4K video streams and augmented reality applications.

Read more: Best internet providers in 2020  

And with regulators poised to open that band up for Wi-Fi use, the industry seems ready to take advantage.

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New Wi-Fi 6E chipsets like this one from Broadcom could be headed into a router near you.

Broadcom

Case in point: Broadcom. Just days after the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that Wi-Fi 6E was a thing, Broadcom rolled into Vegas with new silicon chipsets that support the designation. Manufacturers like Netgear already seem to be onboard with getting those chips into their routers, and TP-Link tells me it already has a Wi-Fi 6E mesh router planned for later this year.

Eric Broockman, CTO of Broadcom partner Extreme Networks, suggests that 6E only became possible in recent months after the FCC considered the ubiquity of Wi-Fi and warmed to the idea of opening up the unlicensed 6GHz band for Wi-Fi use. 

"People won't go to an AirBnB or a coffee shop that doesn't have good Wi-Fi. I think that reality is sinking in with the FCC," Broockman said.

Some who bought in early with Wi-Fi 6 might find that frustrating, but given that Broadcom was ready to go with chipsets right at launch, it's possible that other chipmakers were equally prepared, perhaps even sneaking Wi-Fi 6E-capable hardware into devices currently being sold.

Broockman thinks that's probably a stretch, and suggested that it might be another year or two before the industry feels the full effect of 6E.

"It'll ramp up at its own pace, just like any other generation," Broockman explained. "First, Wi-Fi 6 started shipping early in 2019, and the first big holiday season for it just happened. You're not going to see the first big holiday season for 6E until 2021."

At any rate, I'm looking into it to get a better sense of what devices will and will not be able to take advantage of the additional spectrum if it becomes available, so stay tuned for more reporting on that front.

All of that -- the mesh, the Wi-Fi 6 explosion, the arrival of Wi-Fi 6E -- is to say that there's a lot going on in the world of Wi-Fi right now. And CES is only just getting started. We'll keep tracking all of the latest developments, so do stay tuned.

Originally published Jan. 7, 11:45 a.m. PT.
Update, 3:26 p.m.: Adds industry comment regarding Wi-Fi 6E adoption.