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Opening New Spectrum: Looking Toward the Future of 6GHz

By Scott Lester, Blog Contributor
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Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane and think back to 1999. Many thought the world was going to end at midnight on December 31 thanks to Y2K. The Matrix was hot at the box office and touted as the next Star Wars (boy was that prediction a bust).  The Panama Canal was officially given back to Panama. And finally, 802.11a was ratified and approved for use by the FCC. We need to realize that while the device explosion started many years ago, the last time that new spectrum was allotted for unlicensed Wi-Fi use was nearly 20 years ago with the unlocking of 5 GHz. Yet, as the device counts have exploded at an alarming rate over the last few years, very little has been done to provide much-needed bandwidth by way of additional spectrum.

Based on an initiative by the FCC, it looks like this will change in the near future and provide relief to network administrators and architects hopefully around the world. While there are some challenges in parts of the world outside of the US with releasing the full spread of 1.2 GHz of spectrum, one hopes that other telecommunications governing bodies will follow the lead of the FCC. So, if this happens (and we’re crossing our fingers it will), how will that affect the way we design networks?

Design Impact: Many More Channels 
Obviously, one-way having additional spectrum changes network design is that the number of available channels from which to choose will increase dramatically. With the release of this much spectrum, we have the ability to add seven 160-MHz, 14 80-MHz, 29  40-MHz, and 59 20-MHz channels. That new spectrum, combined with the efficiencies of Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax), has the potential to provide unprecedented amounts of bandwidth — the like of which we have never seen in Wi-Fi.

Some people believe that 11ax will bring the end of dual 5 GHz radio AP because the amount of capacity and efficiency introduced is so much greater than what 11ac can support — and dual 5 GHz radios simply won’t be needed. I agree because I think we will see those radios split between 5 GHz and 6 GHz ranges to maximize the use of the available spectrum. But this poses an interesting problem. As we all know, we have to continue to offer backward compatibility according to the 802.11 standard, so what happens to the newly efficient 2.4-GHz spectrum?

Design Impact: Increased Power Consumption
A second way that network design will be impacted is how the wired infrastructure is built from a power perspective. I believe that we will see in the near future even more power-hungry APs, which offer support for many of today’s features such as ZigBee and BLE, but we also will see tri-radios a requirement. The ability to offer “greenfield” service to 11ax clients in the 6 GHz space via a third Wi-Fi radio will be critical in seeing just how much more efficient 11ax truly is.

Even then, one could wonder if a tri-radio AP will be enough. When we look at how things like Aruba Adaptive Radio Management (ARM) and AirMatch operate, we need reports from each channel that we could potentially use and that data typically comes from on- and off-channel scanning. Could you imagine how long it would take to scan an additional 59 channels? Just for comparison’s sake, we only have 36 channels total for use in the US today. It definitely proposes an interesting problem for hardware engineers to consider.

Wi-Fi Must Play Nicely with Others
Finally, we have to remember that this potential release of new spectrum isn’t going to provide the network industry unrestricted space to do whatever we would like. There are incumbent users such as the U.S. Department of Defense that are already operating in the space and it will require some type of frequency coordination. I agree that this sounds like something that could quickly become a nightmare, as I’ve seen it happen before with singular events such as major league sports, but I’m hoping that for everyone’s sake, we can find a peaceful and easy resolution to this problem.

At the end of the day, a lot of these changes are simple things that we don’t have answers for at the moment. With so many of the final rules still being considered by the governing bodies, you never know what will make it into the final proposal but fortunately for us, the Wi-Fi horizon is certainly looking better for us than it has in quite a while.

The future is coming, and it looks loaded with potential.

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