It was just a few short years ago when we told you about a then-upcoming wireless technology called Wi-Fi 6. At the time, what was once known as 802.11ax was henceforth given a much more consumer-friendly name, and previous convoluted Wi-Fi standards got similar names: 802.11ac became Wi-Fi 5, 802.11n became Wi-Fi 4, and so on.
And now we have an even newer name: Wi-Fi 6E. In short, it’s an updated version of Wi-Fi 6 that includes access to the new 6GHz frequency band. But while it doesn’t introduce new features over Wi-Fi 6, this new frequency band could be a big deal and will make a major impact on the future of wireless networking. Wi-Fi 6E is starting to show up in Apple products already; it’s not in any iPhone yet, but you’ll find it in the latest iPad Pros, the Mac mini, and the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros. We’ll likely find it in more Apple products released throughout 2023, including the iPhone 15.
WHAT’S UP WITH THAT E?
It’s hard to believe, but the Wi-Fi standard has been using the same chunks of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands for over 20 years! Wi-Fi 6 is just the latest attempt to use more advanced processing to wring more bandwidth out of it and make it more reliable.
In April 2020, the FCC took the long-awaited step of offering up 1,200MHz of new unlicensed spectrum in the 6GHz range, more spectrum for Wi-Fi than we’ve ever gotten at once. Wi-Fi 6E is simply the first Wi-Fi standard to support these new radio frequencies. It didn’t get a new name because it’s not actually a new technology—the encoding standards and block size and security features and all the other stuff are exactly the same as those of Wi-Fi 6. That’s why it’s not called Wi-Fi 7, otherwise known as 802.11be, which is still a few years out. Since it’s still Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E is still classified as 802.11ax, but they stuck an “E” on there so people know which products are able to use the new 6GHz spectrum.
MORE SPECTRUM MEANS MORE BANDWIDTH
Allow us to get technical for a moment: The 1200MHz of new spectrum in the 6GHz range is divided up into fourteen 80MHz channels and seven 160MHz channels (they overlap). Wi-Fi 6E routers can use these new channels in addition to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels already available to them, which means they can move a lot more data at once.
How much bandwidth? Well, that will depend on the router and the device and what features they support, but we’re talking about multi-gigabit speeds at the high end. Wi-Fi 6E sets up Wi-Fi to support future internet connections with speeds that are currently way faster than the internet coming into almost any home today.
Technically, the top theoretical limit of Wi-Fi 6E is the same as you’d get on the 5GHz band of Wi-Fi 6 (9.6Gbps), but you’re much more likely to one day actually test those limits with the big spacious 6GHz spectrum.
Wi-Fi 6E also uses more antennas. With Wi-Fi 6 on the iPhone 13, Apple uses 2×2 MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output), which is a two-antenna configuration with two receiver antennas. Wi-Fi 6E could double that capability to 4×4, which would increase the bandwidth and download speed. Many of Apple’s first Wi-Fi 6E products have 2×2 MIMO configurations.
LESS INTERFERENCE MEANS BETTER RELIABILITY
The other big selling point of Wi-Fi 6E is that there’s nothing else in that frequency range contending with it. While Wi-Fi 6’s 2.5GHz and 5GHz spectrums have to fight with a ton of old Wi-Fi networks, microwave ovens, you name it, Wi-Fi 6E enjoys a bunch of big, wide, mostly empty channels. There are other technologies broadcasting in the 6GHz frequency range, but with so many big channels to work with, automated frequency control should be able to easily take care of it.
Higher frequencies tend to mean lower latency, too, so your Wi-Fi could get closer to the responsiveness of a wired network. There’s a downside, of course: Higher frequencies also don’t travel as far or through walls as easily, so Wi-Fi 6E doesn’t necessarily offer any improvements to range over regular Wi-Fi 6.
SHOULD YOU BUY A WI-FI 6E ROUTER?
To get the full advantages of Wi-Fi 6E, you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6E router, which is available from companies such as Google, Linksys, and Netgear. Of course, they’re very new and fairly expensive, and they’re only going to help if the devices you connect to them also support Wi-Fi 6E. The iPhone 15 will likely be on that list, but if you need a new iPhone before then, it’s not worth waiting, especially since you’ll need a whole new home internet setup to enjoy the faster speeds.
However, if you’re in the market for a new router, we recommend looking at the options for Wi-Fi 6E. Wi-Fi 6 is great and widely supported across all of Apple’s products, but Wi-Fi 6E is even better, and the last thing you want when investing in a new Wi-Fi system is buyer’s remorse. ■