Blog: Wi-Fi 6 Ain’t 6 GHz Wi-Fi

Article By : Rebecca Day

Acronyms, speeds and feeds and geek speak are overkill when people want to browse Instagram, binge-watch Tiger…

You gotta feel bad sometimes for the “consumer” half of consumer electronics. Acronyms, speeds and feeds and geek speak are overkill when people want to browse Instagram, binge-watch Tiger King or ask Alexa the weather. Add to that confusing terminology, instructions, set up and frequent reboots, and it’s a wonder that consumers buy this stuff at all.

Take Wi-fi, for instance. You can’t live without it, but setting up a network, typing in dozen-digit alphanumeric passwords and having to look up that password every time you bring a new smart device home is tedious… then frustrating when you skip a number or forget to hit the shift key for a capital letter and have to do it all over again.

Those Wi-Fi-based smart bulbs, smart TVs and smart appliances promise to bring convenience to our lives. When that promise crashes, we want to throw them out the window. My partner still has a smart bulb that’s tuned to green from three Christmases ago when it seemed like a festive idea: Now she can’t remember the app’s log-in info — and doesn’t have the patience to reset it just to turn on the light.

The smart home, sometimes, is anything but. In the past week, I’ve had to sit through an Android TV commercial when my smart TV rebooted, manually turn off a “connected” sous vide device when the app suddenly stopped working, and tell Siri I wasn’t talking to her when she interrupted a conversation.

And then there’s renegade Alexa: We had to unplug our Echo speaker altogether when she was caught in a loop telling us a timer had been going off for 20 minutes, then 25 minutes… and so on — even though we had stopped the timer and it was not, in fact, going off. That “smart speaker” is still unplugged.

Upgrade transition
The most vexing link in the chain is the router and its stranglehold on the household. It was a full-time job last summer inputting new network settings during an ill-conceived switch from FiOS to cable and back to FiOS again. You don’t realize how many Wi-Fi-connected devices you’ve accumulated until you have to punch in the SSID and password on a smartphone keypad over and over.

A lot of people are going to go through that distress next year as next-gen routers hit the market. In the end, it will be worth it for the Wi-Fi elbow room that 6-GHz spectrum will deliver for our growing number of connected devices (currently an average 11 per household, says Deloitte). But the upgrade transition promises to be confusing, frustrating and expensive: a textbook tech headache.

The transition was made possible by the Federal Communications Commission’s decision in late April to open up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use. The FCC says it “will usher in Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, and play a major role in the growth of the Internet of Things.” That should be great news for relieving the traffic congestion that consumers experience as buffering during videos, latency in game play and dropouts in when listening to Billie Eilish.

Wi-Fi 6 ain’t 6 GHz Wi-Fi
Those 6 GHz Wi-Fi routers could reach the market by the end of this year; market research firm IDC predicts 316 million compatible products will be available in 2021. Meantime, there’s plenty of head-scratching ahead for consumers as they try to sort out what’s what.

The most advanced routers on the market today carry the logo Wi-Fi 6, which a mainstream consumer could logically assume works in the newly unlicensed 6 GHz band. But they don’t, of course: dual-band Wi-Fi 6 routers operate in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Consumers will need a Wi-Fi 6E router to access the 6 GHz band.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wised up a couple of years ago to the fact that the 802.11 designation for Wi-Fi standards doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. The alliance is now hiding the 802.11ax standard behind the friendlier Wi-Fi 6. So that previous generations don’t feel left out, the alliance has redubbed 802.11n as Wi-Fi 4 and 802.11ac as Wi-Fi 5.

That alphabet soup is just the Wi-Fi recast. This year is when 5G smartphones are expected to take off as 5G networks expand and phone prices come down (though the economy may have something to say about that). Some in the industry are pitting Wi-Fi 6 against 5G, though others see them as complementary. Pity the poor consumer raised on speeds and feeds assuming Wi-Fi 6 is better than 5G because it’s a higher number.

Consumers will see debates over whether 5G will replace Wi-Fi. “Unfortunately, the answer is not quite so simple,” says the AT&T Business website: “While 5G and Wi-Fi 6 share certain key technologies, each is better suited to a particular use case.”

Over at T-Mobile, which just bought Sprint, they see it differently: “Though currently on wired broadband, we’re planning for a 5G future where wireless broadband will replace home Internet. That means millions across America will finally free themselves from expensive, unreliable cable companies once and for all.”

Meanwhile, the tech world — and consumers’ heads — will keep on spinning.

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