What is Wi-Fi 6E, How is it Different from Wi-Fi 6, and Do I Need It?

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 Wi-Fi 6 devices that operate in the 6-GHz band, a new swath of unlicensed spectrum that more than 58 countries across the Americas, EMEA, and APAC have made available for Wi-Fi to date,” explains Kevin Robinson, senior vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you’d like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.

Wi-Fi 6E Explained

Until now, our Wi-Fi operated on two bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The Wi-Fi 6 standard employs various features to improve the efficiency and data throughput of your wireless network and reduce latency for those two bands.

“Wi-Fi 6E extends the capacity, efficiency, coverage, and performance benefits of Wi-Fi 6 into the 6-GHz band,” says Robinson. “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.”

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.

Rebranding Standards

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.