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Wi-Fi is getting its biggest upgrade in 20 years

In a few months, there’s going to be a lot more Wi-Fi to go around. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open up a plot of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use — the same regulatory go-ahead that lets your router broadcast over the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. That means there are now more open airwaves — a lot more — that routers can use to broadcast Wi-Fi signals. Once the new spectrum is officially opened for business later this year, that should translate to faster, more reliable connections from the next generation of devices.
This is the biggest spectrum addition since the FCC cleared the way for Wi-Fi in 1989, so it’s a huge deal. The new spectrum basically quadruples the amount of space available for routers and other devices, so it will mean a lot more bandwidth and a lot less interference for any device that can take advantage of it.

“This is the most monumental decision around Wi-Fi spectrum in its history, in the 20 years we’ve been around,” Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry-backed group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi, said ahead of the vote.

Devices are expected to start supporting 6GHz Wi-Fi by the end of 2020, so its implementation isn’t far away. When it arrives, expect to see it branded under the name “Wi-Fi 6E.”

Here’s what we know so far about what to expect.

HOW WILL THIS FIX MY BAD WI-FI?
If you’ve ever had trouble connecting to your Wi-Fi network, there’s a good chance spectrum congestion was the problem. Whenever you have too many devices trying to connect over the same band of frequencies, some devices will start to get dropped. So if you see a long list of nearby Wi-Fi networks in your area, that may be why your connection is getting slower and less reliable. There are simply too many competing signals for your computer to get through.

6GHz Wi-Fi can go a long way toward solving that problem. It offers not just a new swath of airwaves for routers to use, but a spacious swath that doesn’t require overlapping signals like on some current Wi-Fi channels. The new spectrum has enough room for up to seven maximum-capacity Wi-Fi streams to all be broadcast simultaneously and not interfere with each other — all without using any of the previously available spectrum.

To get a little more specific, the FCC is opening up 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band. For the past two decades, Wi-Fi has been operating with roughly 400MHz of spectrum, and all available channels had to be split up within that limited space. Channels on the 6GHz band are expected to be 160MHz each in size. Only two channels at that size could fit inside the currently available airspace.

WHAT IS 6GHZ WI-FI?

Wi-Fi works by broadcasting over airwaves that are open for anyone to use. Today, it’s working over two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Now, we’re adding a third band, 6GHz.

The numbers make a difference (2.4GHz travels farther, but 6GHz delivers data faster), but what really matters isn’t the specific frequencies being used, but how large a swath of airwaves is available. And that’s why 6GHz is particularly exciting: this new band quadruples the total space available to traditional Wi-Fi.

On an immediate level, it means that if you’re the first person in your apartment building to get a 6GHz router, you’re going to be living large as far as connectivity goes because no one will be competing with you. But even once 6GHz routers become more common several years from now, the hope is that the more spacious spectrum will allow for signals to remain faster and stronger than the ones we use today. “We will not be in the same position we are today five years from now,” Robinson said.

WILL THIS MAKE WI-FI FASTER? SORT OF

Technically, 6GHz Wi-Fi has the same theoretical top speed as 5GHz Wi-Fi: 9.6 Gbps, the maximum offered under the Wi-Fi 6 standard, the current version of Wi-Fi.

You’re still not going to get that speed in real life, but the new airwaves should help bump your speed up. That’s because the limited spectrum available at 5GHz means Wi-Fi signals are often not as large as they could be. At 6GHz, it’s assumed that routers will broadcast at the current maximum allowable channel size, meaning a faster connection.

Wi-Fi connections to smartphones could hit 1–2 Gbps over these new networks, Robinson said. Those are the kinds of speeds expected from millimeter-wave 5G, which so far has very limited availability. Of course, your speeds will still be limited by what your home internet provider offers, but it’s a huge potential leap.


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