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9 January 2020

WiFi Alliance, Celeno, Broadcom drop ball on WiFi’s 6 GHz approval

The WiFi Alliance is so confident in the failure of a handful of US utilities companies to block a spectrum-sharing proposal for WiFi in 6 GHz, that the industry body has coined a new term – WiFi 6E – to help consumers identify new devices operating in the unlicensed band. In other words, WiFi 6 GHz is a done deal.

In the highly unlikely event that the opposition, backed by the US Department of Energy, can muster any convincing last minute evidence, the announcement implies that the WiFi Alliance has inside information that the FCC is about to approve the expansion of 6 GHz spectrum to additional wireless devices in the coming weeks.

However, after pinging an email to the WiFi Alliance, a representative told us, “The WiFi Alliance has not made any prejudgment on the outcome of the FCC’s proceeding on this topic. First, it is important to emphasize that the WiFi Alliance is confident the record clearly demonstrates that unlicensed systems can be allowed to access the 6 GHz band with appropriate regulatory constraints. Second, other countries (e.g. in Europe and South Korea) are progressing on allowing WiFi implementation in the 6 GHz band.”

Nevertheless, jumping ahead with new terminology is essentially a premature victory parade from the WiFi Alliance – but is the WiFi 6E branding likely to incite additional confusion among consumers? Probably. More pressing though is the immediate reaction from operators and vendors at CES this week.

Comcast and Celeno were two of the most significant from each pool to flex their WiFi 6 muscles at CES. Like the WiFi Alliance, silicon specialist Celeno has jumped the gun ahead of any official FCC green light by adding the WiFi 6E terminology to its CL8000 WiFi product series. This includes its dual-transceivers and PCIe (peripheral component interconnect express) interface product series, available at different MIMO beamforming configurations – 8T8R, 6T6R and 4T4R – supporting up to 4.8 Gbps per transceiver and 6 Gbps together.

Celeno’s WiFi 6E products will sample in Q2, with the company stating that it believes 6 GHz spectrum rules will be published in early 2020 with regulation in effect in early 2021.

Coinciding with the announcement that its DOCSIS 3.1 xFi Advanced Gateway will roll out to subscribers in the coming months, with WiFi 6 support, Comcast also inked a major deal with Intel this week. Comcast and Chipzilla will collaborate on devices and services enabling 10 Gbps broadband with a focus on WiFi 6. Comcast will be using the 8th generation Intel Core processors and Intel Puma SoC in its xFi gateways.

This is hugely significant for the future. No household desperately requires 10 Gbps speeds today, and very few would be willing to pay for it right now. Nevertheless, as TechCrunch was told in an interview, Comcast’s 1 Gbps Xfinity broadband rolled out in 2016 and now reaches 58 million people, although Comcast’s President of Technology, Tony Werner, declined to specify how many Xfinity subs are actually plugging into 1 Gbps connections.

In 4 years from now, when e-sports, virtual reality, augmented reality, and multiple 4K streams are commonplace in US households, then we could look back at this collaboration as momentous.

Back to WiFi 6E now. The WiFi Alliance claims the branding initiative will encourage rapid availability of devices once approval is received. While it hasn’t specified what the letter E in WiFi 6E represents (likely E for Expanded or Extended), the branding is designed to help users identify devices offering the next-generation features of WiFi 6 (like lower latency and faster data rates through the adoption of techniques including OFDMA and MU-MIMO) – specifically in the 6 GHz band where devices operating should – fingers crossed – experience less interference.

That said, expanding WiFi from 5 GHz to 6 GHz – using multiple 160 MHz-wide channels – is expected to bring improved quality and capacity by avoiding interference from legacy devices, while the divergent utilities players have argued (but have since gone quiet) that sliding in WiFi alongside critical energy use cases will disrupt communications. Importantly, the proposal will allow only devices supporting the latest WiFi 6 standard (802.11ax) to operate in 6 GHz, therefore removing any potential disruption from legacy devices operating in 802.11ac/n/g/a/b.

The WiFi Alliance took the opportunity to quote support for 6 GHz from 18 members of the alliance, namely AirTies, ASSIA, Broadcom, CableLabs, CommScope, Intel and Qualcomm.

Metin Taskin, CTO at AirTies, said, “The addition of 6 GHz WiFi will be a game-changer for consumers and operators alike. More spectrum and larger channel bandwidth will provide the capacity to support even more devices, at even faster speeds.” Taskin added that the AirTies Smart WiFi software and cloud-based management technology is well positioned to get the best performance from devices across all three bands – whether new WiFi 6 devices in 6 GHz, or legacy devices operating in 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz.

ASSIA’s CSO Tuncay Cil weighed in, “Opening up blocks of 6 GHz bandwidth for WiFi definitely supports growth of WiFi in the next decade. Many more larger-bandwidth channels can be simultaneously deployed to enable data heavy communication and back and front haul of multi-node wireless networks, and increase immunity to interference over all as a WiFi system.” Cil said ASSIA is actively supporting standardization and commercialization of new capabilities of 6 GHz in a vendor-neutral fashion.

On the silicon side, Broadcom has been an active voice in the 6 GHz debate. The company’s VP of Wireless Communications, Vijay Nagarajan, cited how the new swath of spectrum will power new consumer experiences on smartphones, headsets and future wearables yet to be invented. Appropriately, Broadcom launched its first suite of WiFi 6E SoCs this week.

Qualcomm believes the “ground-breaking potential of extending the already transformative characteristics of WiFi 6 into the 6 GHz band is hard to overstate.”

From WiFi management software to the fixed line market, CableLabs highlights that wireless links need to be robust in order for consumers to reap the benefits of 10G technology – highlighting 6 GHz spectrum as critical to the 10G vision.

For added balance to the now virtually defunct argument, reports emerged in early November from the utilities sector claiming there was new evidence showing interference to critical applications in safety functions and energy resources such as battery storage and smart meters. It now appears the energy industry revolt has hit a brick wall – clearing the path for WiFi connectivity at 6 GHz.