The idea of Wi-Fi 6E has technologists salivating over access to pristine spectrum. It’s like having the beach to yourself. There is no traffic from other users. No one puts sand in your towel.
From a protocol stack perspective, Wi-Fi 6E is the same standard as Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax. The big advance is that it can operate in the 6 GHz spectrum, which was previously unavailable for Wi-Fi.
In May 2020, Tam Dell’Oro wrote about the FCC’s decision to attribute this frequency for unlicensed use in the US. He explained that the move opened the door for Wi-Fi to rival 5G in IoT applications. It increased the available spectrum almost five times, improving rural connectivity. Dell’Oro predicted that Europe and Middle Eastern countries would continue to allocate this band for Wi-Fi use. (For an up-to-date view of which countries have adopted the new frequency for Wi-Fi, see here.)
Since then, our lives have been turned upside down by a two and a half year pandemic. Hybrid work is the new reality. Designated workstations are gone and efficient hot desking needs good Wi-Fi coverage. With large swaths of the workforce at home, LAN traffic patterns have changed. On the day that everyone arrives at the office, the Wi-Fi is at maximum capacity.
The pandemic has thrown another wrench in the works by wreaking havoc on supply chains. Manufacturers have record delays. Businesses have been waiting 6 months to a year for their wireless LAN orders, and in the meantime they are using outdated equipment.
In February of this year, storm clouds were brewing off the 6E coast. Businesses were asking for Wi-Fi 6, not 6E. Additionally, chipmakers promised that Wi-Fi 7, which will also use the new 6GHz spectrum, was not far off. “If you look at the signs, the direction they’re pointing is that 7 is going to be the update; 6E is going to be the niche,” Dell’Oro said in a interview with Wireless RCR.
Now, business-class Wi-Fi 6E has been on the market for four quarters and it’s time to take a look at the hard numbers. How is Wi-Fi 6E stacking up in terms of shipping volumes?
Shipments have been, well… disappointing. When compared to an average of the previous three WLAN technologies (Wi-Fi 5 Wave 1, Wi-Fi 5 Wave 2, and Wi-Fi 6), Wi-Fi 6E has shipped at a third of the rate. Let’s take a look at what might be holding things back.
- Slow acceptance by WLAN manufacturers. At the time of this blog writing, there are more than half a dozen companies shipping enterprise-grade Wi-Fi 6E. However, when the first WLAN 6E access point was shipped in the third quarter of 2021, there were only two vendors with products. The next vendor didn’t start shipping for another two quarters, an unusually slow adoption. The following points may explain why manufacturers have been slow to get on board.
- Lack of products due to problems in the supply chain. All WLAN vendors outside of China would sell more units if they could produce them. Because it supports a third frequency band, Wi-Fi 6E requires more components than previous versions of Wi-Fi, an impediment when supply is tight. However, we did see 12 percent year-over-year growth in unit shipments in the second quarter. If margins were convincing, vendors would prioritize Wi-Fi 6E products. Supply chain issues are a complication, but there are other factors at play.
- Worldwide applicability. While 28 countries have allocated the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi use, several have not. Notably, China, whose companies bought nearly 30 percent of the world’s units last year, has not approved this spectrum for Wi-Fi use. To test whether a lack of Chinese demand was hampering global adoption, we took a look at data excluding this market. The analysis showed that outside of China, after four quarters of availability, Wi-Fi 6E shipments still represent only 35% of the average penetration achieved by the last three technologies. Clearly, there must be other causes of slow adoption.
- Restrictions on outdoor use and possible interference. Both the FCC and CEPT in Europe have approved Wi-Fi 6E for indoor use. Not allowed for Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP) levels greater than 30 dBm in the US or 24 dBm in Europe. Wi-Fi access points broadcasting outdoors on the 6 GHz band can interfere with critical applications that are already using the frequency. Interference with utility or rail control systems could have catastrophic consequences. In the US, for an access point to operate on “standard power” (necessary for outdoor applications), it must first consult an automatic frequency control system. Several organizations have applied to become operators of the AFC system, but the process has not been completed. Manufacturers are eager to start outdoor deployments: Two have already announced outdoor 6E access points. However, over the last five years, outdoor access points have accounted for only about 4% of total units shipped. This leaves us with one more possible reason holding back 6E implementations.
- End device support. Although many high-end laptops and mobile phones support Wi-Fi 6E, there are still many legacy PCs and smartphones in use. Also, Apple left out the 6E from the latest iPhone 14 release in September. Until there is support in mainstream business-class PCs and mid-tier mobile devices, Wi-Fi 6E will not be widely adopted.
Despite its slow start, there are some exciting things happening with Wi-Fi 6E. In July, the University of Michigan completed a project to cover two campuses, giving students and staff access to HD video streams in their densely packed classrooms and auditoriums. On another note, the Wireless Broadband Alliance IoT Working Group is investigating Wi-Fi 6E capability to meet the stringent low latency requirements for Industrial IoT. As industrial companies rely on more wireless equipment, the new 6 GHz band will be critical. Meanwhile, at Dell’Oro Group, we are raising our forecast for Wi-Fi 6, predicting that 6E will remain a niche until Wi-Fi 7 is available. If you are on the beach 6 GHz Wi-Fi, you can put up an umbrella and stretch out. There will be silence for a few more quarters