We collectively stream more movies and TV shows, play more online games, and make more video calls than ever before, and all this activity puts a serious strain on our Wi-Fi networks. We know the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard offers a range of benefits, including faster and more reliable access, but how does Wi-Fi 6E fit in?
Wi-Fi 6E is the name for devices that operate in the 6-gigahertz (GHz) band, a new swath of unlicensed spectrum. Until now, our Wi-Fi operated on two bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The Wi-Fi 6 standard has various features to improve the efficiency and data throughput of your wireless network and reduce latency for those two bands. Wi-Fi 6E brings those improvements to the 6-GHz band. Let's break that down even further.
Updated October 2022: We've added our experience with Wi-Fi 6E and news of more affordable Wi-Fi 6E routers, mesh systems, and devices.
Wi-Fi 6E Explained
Wi-Fi 6E extends the capacity, efficiency, coverage, and performance benefits of Wi-Fi 6 into the 6-GHz band. “With up to seven additional super-wide 160-MHz channels available, Wi-Fi 6E devices deliver greater network performance and support more Wi-Fi users at once, even in very dense and congested environments," says Kevin Robinson, senior vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Each band is a chunk of frequency. The 2.4-GHz band comprises 11 channels that are each 20 megahertz (MHz) wide. The 5-GHz band has 45 channels, but they can be fused to create 40-MHz or 80-MHz channels, enabling them to transmit more data at once. The 6-GHz band supports 60 channels that can be up to 160 MHz wide.
That’s a huge chunk of extra capacity. Think of it as going from a single-track road (2.4 GHz) to a three-lane highway (5 GHz) to a six-lane superhighway (6 GHz). The analogy works for coverage too. Higher frequencies have a tougher time penetrating solid walls and floors, so the single-track 2.4-GHz roads reach further than the 5-GHz highways, which reach further than the 6-GHz superhighways.
Wi-Fi standards have traditionally been quite confusing. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) establishes Wi-Fi standards, and those standards are certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which currently has 866 member companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, and many more.
The Wi-Fi Alliance realized (correctly) that a standard named IEEE 802.11ax might be easier to grasp if it was rebranded as Wi-Fi 6. This move retroactively makes the IEEE 802.11ac standard Wi-Fi 5, IEEE 802.11 becomes Wi-Fi 4, and so on. Each of these standards is an umbrella term for a range of new features and improvements.
To give one example, Wi-Fi 4 introduced MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology to allow for multiple simultaneous transmissions to and from a device. The second wave of Wi-Fi 5 products introduced MU-MIMO, (MU stands for multi-user), enabling multiple devices to connect simultaneously to send and receive data. Wi-Fi 6 improves MU-MIMO and introduces OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access), enabling a single transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
The range of improvements and technologies in Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E is the same. The need for the E comes from the opening up of that 6-GHz band. “With the density of Wi-Fi devices and neighboring networks increasing dramatically, Wi-Fi 6E provides pristine spectrum to maintain a great user experience,” Robinson says.
Do I Need Wi-Fi 6E?
If you’re shopping for a new router or looking at mesh systems, you will certainly want to look for Wi-Fi 6 support. There are many other ways to make your Wi-Fi faster, but buying a Wi-Fi 6 router is an important one. It brings all the benefits we’ve discussed and a few we haven’t, including improved security through WPA3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 3) and reduced battery drain, courtesy of TWT (Target Wake Time).
Whether you need to consider Wi-Fi 6E is a trickier question. We’ve already mentioned the shorter range, but the other big problem with Wi-Fi 6E is that it requires new hardware, and it’s expensive right now. Only routers and devices with Wi-Fi 6E support can operate on this newly opened 6-GHz band. Existing Wi-Fi 6 routers and any older devices cannot and will never be able to.
That said, we are seeing more options for folks looking to try Wi-Fi 6E, and prices are getting more palatable. We have tested a few Wi-Fi 6E routers, like the Netgear Nighthawk RAXE300 (7/10, WIRED Recommends) at $400, and mesh systems like the TP-Link Deco XE75 (two-pack is $300), Motorola Q14 (two-pack is $430), and Google’s Nest Wifi Pro (7/10, WIRED Recommends) (two-pack is $300). There will be many more in the near future.
In our testing, Wi-Fi 6E can deliver some of the fastest speeds we have seen at very low latency, but the range is noticeably more limited than with the 5-GHz band. With a clear line of sight to the router or node, 6 GHz works beautifully, but as soon as there’s a wall or ceiling in the way, you will likely fall back to 5 GHz.
Remember, you also need Wi-Fi 6E devices to take advantage of these speeds. Most new high-end Android phones, laptops, and TVs support Wi-Fi 6E, but it is far from ubiquitous. There’s no Wi-Fi 6E in the iPhone 14 series or the PlayStation 5, for example, and the Xbox Series X doesn’t even have Wi-Fi 6 support. If you want to add it to your desktop or laptop, you’ll need a new network card or dongle. Opt for Wi-Fi 6E and you’re unlikely to see a lot of benefit in the short term.
Wi-Fi 6 is enough for most people right now. On the other hand, all of these standards are backward compatible, so if you're in the market for a new router and don’t mind spending the money, then a Wi-Fi 6E system will keep you future-proof for a while.
Whatever you decide, just make sure it says “Wi-Fi Certified” on the packaging. Robinson says that'll make sure you get WPA3 security and interoperability with other devices in the home.
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