Entering the Wi-Fi 6E Era: Samsung Launches First 6GHz Wi-Fi Phone

Article By : Don Scansen

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the world’s first Wi-Fi 6E enabled mobile phone. The capability is enabled by a chip from Broadcom...

In a kind of coming of age, the Samsung Galaxy line turns 21 today. The S21 line-up of phones was officially announced at the Galaxy Unpacked event. Rumours and renderings have been floating around for a while with the biggest news about the colors that would be offered, number of camera lenses on the back, and that the S21 variants will ship without a charging brick in the box. What is significant is that a selection of those S21 boxes will contain the world’s first Wi-Fi 6E enabled mobile phone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra. As you may recall, Wi-Fi 6E is the “extended” version of the standard that adds an additional seven 160 MHz channels in the 6 GHz band. The S21 will itself contain an important ingredient to enabling the extended Wi-Fi capability: the Broadcom BCM4389 Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5 combo chip.
The first Wi-Fi 6E chip to market powers the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (source: Broadcom)
Broadcom announced its most advanced combination chip in February 2020 and was the first manufacturer to receive FCC approval (in December). Today, a Broadcom press release proudly announced the chip’s inclusion in the Samsung S21 Ultra. Several countries (like my own) quickly followed the FCC in allocating the 6 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi 6E. That helped give Broadcom its first mover advantage in the space. The BCM4389 chip was first to FCC approval and also first to receive the Wi-Fi Alliance certification for 6E. Alliance CEO, Edgar Figueroa, had this to say, “Broadcom’s chipset, among the first Wi-Fi 6E certified devices in our interoperability test bed, that powers Samsung’s Wi-Fi 6E smartphone demonstrates the industry’s rapid momentum to deliver Wi-Fi 6E benefits securely and reliably to Wi-Fi users.” Without mentioning the conditions many continue to work under from home, Broadcom’s news release touts the new chipsets as, “Unlocking the value of Wi-Fi 6E for remote work, education, telemedicine, and gaming.” Adding the BCM4389 to the S21 Ultra creates a cellphone with the potential for Wi-Fi speeds over two gigabits per second (Gbps). The new Wi-Fi 6E makes that possible by adding the additional bandwidth in the 6 GHz band. The seven new 160 MHz channels are all free of dynamic frequency selection (DFS). Prior to 6E, the Wi-Fi 6 standard offered only one out of the three high bandwidth channels with no DFS.
Wi-Fi 6E capability adds seven new 160 MHz channels (source:  Broadcom). Click on the image for a larger view.
To put even more perspective on Wi-Fi 6E and its potential, consider that the 5 GHz band provided a total of 500 MHz but only 180 MHz without DFS. Even more stark was the original 2.4 GHz band with a total bandwidth of only 80 MHz. With the most significant addition of Wi-Fi bandwidth in a couple decades, the entry into 6 GHz territory with Wi-Fi 6E adds 1200 MHz of new bandwidth. With no DFS, 160 MHz of contiguous spectrum in each of the seven new channels allows higher speed applications to operate more reliably. I would suggest that the most important technology offered in the new chipset from Broadcom is Wi-Fi 6E and the most important of that is the additional 1200 MHz of new wireless bandwidth. But there is more in the BCM4389 than just Wi-Fi functionality. According to Broadcom, “The chip also has a unique multi-radio Bluetooth 5 architecture that supports a premium audio experience with Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, and Tri-Band Simultaneous (TBS) connectivity that improves Wi-Fi and Bluetooth performance and battery utilization.” TBS is Broadcom’s architecture for mobile devices. It includes two main Wi-Fi radios and a MIMO Bluetooth radio, but the main feature is a third ultra-low-power independent radio for optimizing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth performance. The three-radio architecture improves quality of service for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streams.
Evolution of Broadcom Wi-Fi 6 chipsets (source: Broadcom)
Broadcom suggests that the Bluetooth system of the BCM4389 chip will allow equipped phones to “provide a seamless, “glitch-free” audio experience with popular Bluetooth headsets even in congested places such as subway stations.” The tri-band system is part of improving Bluetooth performance. If my own experience is any guide, Bluetooth peripheral users will appreciate improvements to pairing and reduced interference. Beyond the tri-band radio architecture, the BCM4389 borrows some techniques from its Wi-Fi cousin. The new Broadcom chip also employs multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) and beamforming to enhance Bluetooth connectivity. “Our joint dedication to a market-leading technology has evolved to now include Wi-Fi 6E on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and enables an unrivalled connectivity experience for Galaxy users to share and consume content with confidence,” said JM Choi, VP & Head of Convergence Development Group, Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics. Battery life and power consumption are generally top of mind for mobile device users. It’s welcome news when manufacturers address those. With the S21 Ultra not yet available for testing, we will have to wait and see how well it performs. However, the use of Wi-Fi 6E certainly offers the possibility of improved battery life.  Broadcom literature related to the BCM4389 indicates that the 6 GHz Wi-Fi channels eliminate 70% of the overhead of the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. The standard also requires that devices transmit at the lowest effective power level.
Wi-Fi 6E is expected to improve battery life (source: Broadcom)
Leaked prices showed that the Samsung would adopt more aggressive pricing with the S21 line-up. Will improved performance with the Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip (SoC) and more attractive pricing improve the S21 generation’s odds of competing against the iPhone 12? What about the big possibilities in improved connectivity with the Ultra? We shall see. One thing seems to be clear. Now at the age of majority, the Wi-Fi 6E enabled S21 Ultra appears targeted to buyers without budget restrictions.

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