Wi-Fi’s biggest upgrade in decades is starting to arrive

Wi-Fi is about to get a lot better. Many of this year’s new phones, laptops, TVs, routers, and more will come with support for Wi-Fi 6E, a new upgrade to Wi-Fi that’s essentially like expanding your wireless connection from a two-lane road to an eight-lane highway. It’s the biggest upgrade to Wi-Fi in 20 years, and connections should be faster and a lot more reliable because of it.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry-wide group that oversees Wi-Fi, is now starting to certify the first wave of products with support for Wi-Fi 6E. Phones, PCs, and laptops with support should start hitting the market in the first months of 2021, according to the IDC research group, and TVs and VR devices with support are expected to arrive by the middle of the year.

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Wi-Fi 6E explained: Wi-Fi is getting its biggest upgrade in 20 years

Some of the first devices are likely to be announced over the next week. During CES, which kicks off on January 11th, router companies will preview what they have coming up for the year. Samsung is also planning to announce its next flagship phones, the Galaxy S21 series, and some if not all of them are likely to have support for Wi-Fi 6E thanks to the Snapdragon 888 processor. Because the chip includes support for it, Wi-Fi 6E should be present in many of this year’s top Android phones.

Wi-Fi 6E is such a big upgrade because it relies on a huge expansion of the wireless airwaves available to consumer devices. In April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission opened up this wide new swath of spectrum in the United States, but new hardware was required in order to make use of it. Nearly a year on, we’re finally starting to see devices with those capabilities.

Existing Wi-Fi devices operate on two spectrum bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Wi-Fi 6E adds a third — 6GHz — and there’s a lot more of it, quadrupling the total amount of airwaves used for typical Wi-Fi. That means you can have larger, higher-speed connections, and that airwaves are less likely to be congested. In an apartment building, for instance, your neighbors’ Wi-Fi networks might interfere with your own. But with Wi-Fi 6E, there’s a lot more bandwidth to go around, so there’s less of a chance that you’ll be fighting over the exact same airwaves.

It’ll be some time before most new devices are shipping with Wi-Fi 6E, though. Not all new gadgets are even shipping with standard Wi-Fi 6 yet, and that version of Wi-Fi started rolling out about two years ago. By the start of 2022, IDC only expects 20 percent of shipping Wi-Fi 6 products to also support Wi-Fi 6E.

Another hurdle is support from regulators worldwide. Though the US has approved use of 6GHz airwaves, communications regulators in other countries need to approve the spectrum for Wi-Fi use, too. The Wi-Fi Alliance says that the UK, EU, South Korea, Chile, and United Arab Emirates have all given a green light on allowing 6GHz usage for Wi-Fi, while regulators in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and Japan are among others where progress is being made.

“There is absolutely momentum, and it is building around making [6GHz] available for Wi-Fi,” Kevin Robinson, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s marketing leader, told The Verge.

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