By Paul Colmer, EXCO member at Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA)
WiFi has been a significant part of our daily lives for many years, and its importance continues to grow as more devices rely on wireless connectivity.
Until very recently, WiFi services have been limited to narrow allocations in the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands. Thankfully, many countries are already opening up all or part of the 6 GHz band in unlicensed spectrum, known as WiFi 6E.
WiFi 6E offers faster speeds, lower latency, and increased capacity compared to previous WiFi generations. This is because the 6 GHz frequency band has more available channels and less interference than the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands commonly used by WiFi networks.
The 6 GHz band is split into the lower and upper bands, with the lower band ranging from 5.925 GHz to 6.425 GHz and the upper band ranging from 6.425 GHz to 7.125 GHz. Low power modes in the 6 GHz band are designed for indoor WiFi use, while standard power operation enables the use of 6E WiFi outdoors in point-to-point and multipoint technology, similar to what we’re doing today in the 5.8 GHz band.
Many countries have already opened the entire band, upper and lower, for low power unlicensed use indoors, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.
On the other hand, the UK and most of Europe have opened only the lower band for unlicensed use, and there is ongoing debate in Europe about whether the upper band should be used for cellular licensed spectrum. This will be discussed later this year at the World Radio Council Conference in UAE.
South Africa hasn’t opened up the 6 GHz band yet, although ICASA has published plans to open the lower band for low power unlicensed use, which should finally happen soon.
Where we’re going
Once standard power 6 GHz use is approved for outdoor use, the additional 1.2GHz of spectrum in the 6E band will provide a huge swathe of spectrum compared to the small number of slots we currently have in the congested 5.8 GHz band. However, there are incumbent users in this band, mostly satellite, which is why Automatic Frequency Coordination (AFC) has been introduced.
Any WiFi device operating outdoors will access the AFC database and, based on its geographic location and the presence of incumbent operators, allocate channels and power accordingly to avoid interference.
Fourteen applications have been approved by the FCC in the US to build AFC databases, some of which have gone into commercial testing. It looks like a race between Canada, Brazil, and the US as to who will be the first to operate in this band in standard power.
In South Africa, I’m hopeful that we will allocate the upper 6E band to unlicensed use and then step up regulations to design our own AFC database, enabling the use of the entire 6E band for standard power outdoor use. There is no reason why the decision should be delayed until after the WRC23 council resolutions. Any delay means that the country is missing out on the momentum globally as other countries have already made the decision to open up the upper band of 6E in unlicensed form.
I have published numerous articles that mention the research work of Dr. Raul Katz in many countries, including South Africa, outlining what would happen to those regions when 6 GHz spectrum becomes available. The South African section of report suggests that over a 10-year period, the economic boost alone will be worth more than $56 billion – around R900 billion in today’s money, with all the other spinoffs this sort of market infusion creates.
The speed and bandwidth advantages of WiFi 6E will be a significant advantage for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs). Among other benefits, it will allow the use of 320MHz channels for supporting many more users without any interference issues, which equates to turning a 3 lane highway into a 12 + lane highway, reducing the pressure on peak congestion periods and improving the quality and reliability of Internet access for tens of thousands of users.
WiFi 7 and beyond
WiFi 6E has opened the door to the next generation of WiFi protocol: WiFi 7.
WiFi 7 is the successor to WiFi 6 and incorporates the existing 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, and 6E spectrum. Unlike WiFi 6, which can only access the 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz bands independently, WiFi 7 can access 6E, 5.8 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands simultaneously, and strap them all together to form a tri-band system. This creates an incredible performance leap in both latency and speed.
The first WiFi 7 devices have already appeared on the market, with some tests demonstrating download speeds exceeding 10GBps, and theoretically will be capable of exceeding 33GBps. The first WiFi 7 handset has already been developed in China, and more WiFi 7 handsets are expected to appear later this year or early next year.
WiFi has traditionally been a ‘slow’ technology, which is why we were (and still are) dependent on Ethernet LAN cables to maximise fibre internet speeds. Not only will WiFi 7 promise usher in redundancy for many fixed wired networks, it will also enable new applications for technologies that require superfast bandwidth, such as real-time augmented reality, machine learning, and AI.
The introduction of WiFi 6E will be a quantum leap forward, as there haven't been any major spectrum allocations in unlicensed WiFi since its creation. New spectrum will liberate congested networks, and usher in the next evolution of wireless protocols that promise exponential performance in both latency and speed.
The future of WiFi is already happening, and I can’t wait for it to get here.