The truth about Wi-Fi 6E (and why you might not want to upgrade)
Note: This feature was first published on 1 August 2023.
Earlier this year in May, the IMDA finally allocated new airwaves in the 6GHz band to support the deployment of the Wi-Fi 6E standard. I say finally because Wi-Fi 6E isn’t exactly new. The first Wi-Fi 6E routers were announced in the second half of 2020. As is the case with any new networking standard, router manufacturers are claiming substantial improvements in networking performance, but is it true? And should you upgrade? Here's what you need to know about Wi-Fi 6E.
What exactly is Wi-Fi 6E?
Wi-Fi 6 operates in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. Wi-Fi 6E improves on itby adding a new and unoccupied 6GHz band. Despite the higher frequency, the maximum theoretical speeds are unchanged. Yes, it delivers the same maximum speeds as "regular" Wi-Fi 6.
If you want to get a bit more technical, this means with an 80MHz channel, you’d be getting around 600Mbps per stream; and with a 160MHz channel, you could get up to 1,200Mbps. These figures are exactly the same as Wi-Fi 6.
Then why do they claim Wi-Fi 6E to be faster?
The answer is congestion. Arguably the biggest problem with Wi-Fi in homes is congestion. There are simply too many networks vying for the same few channels. And this is especially apparent in a densely populated country like ours.
Frequency is just one aspect that affects speed, the other aspect is channel width. And to fully achieve the maximum speeds of Wi-Fi 6 requires the use of 160MHz channels, which are formed using eight contiguous 20MHz channels.
And if you study the available channels in the 5GHz spectrum in the image above, you’ll realise you cannot form 160MHz wide channels without the use of DFS channels. This is an issue on our tiny island because DFS channels are typically reserved for government services like military radar and weather radar. Priority is given to these services, which explains why you might experience brief drops in connection if you have a router that supports DFS and you enable 160MHz wide channels.
Wi-Fi 6E gets around this issue entirely because the 6GHz spectrum is free and untouched. This means Wi-Fi 6E router can more freelyform 160MHz wide channels to deliver in their maximum performance. So in other words, even though the maximum theoretical speeds are the same, Wi-Fi 6E is faster in the sense that it's easier for the routers to deliver their maximum performance.
Are there downsides?
There are a couple of major downsides to Wi-Fi 6E so let’s address them now. The first is range. Higher frequencies are poorer at penetrating obstacles such as walls and floors. In the real world, unless you are very near to your Wi-Fi 6E router, you could actually end up with lower speeds when connected to the 6GHz band than you would have on the 5GHz band.
The second downside is that you need a new router. Wi-Fi 6E isn’t something you can enable with a firmware update and requires a brand-new router. And right now, Wi-Fi 6E routers aren’t cheap. But on top of that, your devices need to support Wi-Fi 6E too. The good thing is that most of the latest notebooks, phones, and tablets do.
Further complicating matters is that the approval of Wi-Fi 6E by the IMDA has come very late and now Wi-Fi 7 is looming on the horizon. I wrote a guide about Wi-Fi 7 hereand I urge you to read it, but, in a nutshell, it boasts significant new technologies that promise to make it even faster than Wi-Fi 6E.
Should I upgrade now, then?
No, I don’t recommend upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E particularly if you already have a decent Wi-Fi 6 router or mesh networking system. Wi-Fi 6E routers aren’t cheap and it’s doubtful that the benefits of the 6GHz band can overcome its range issues. Unless you have a Wi-Fi 5 router or older, it makes sense to hold off and wait for Wi-Fi 7 instead. According to the latest news, Wi-Fi 7 routers should hit store shelves by late next year.
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