The Wi-Fi Alliance adopted the terms Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E to market the IEEE 802.11ax wireless local area network standard of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE. This standard is the successor of Wi-Fi 5 and it is the predecessor to the newer Wi-Fi 7. The specific Wi-Fi 6 was introduced in 2019, and it features wireless communication via the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, while Wi-Fi 6E was introduced in 2020 and it features the 6 GHz frequency band for wireless communication.
Most communication devices introduced in 2020 and onwards have the Wi-Fi 6 certification. This means that they are capable of utilizing either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands. Compatibility with the 6 GHz band is a reserved feature found in more expensive devices such as flagship smartphones and high-tier wireless routers with Wi-Fi 6E certification. This trend is expected to change beginning in 2024 and onward with the introduction of Wi-Fi 7. This article explains the difference between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.
Explainer: Difference Between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E
Some consumers and users might be confused about what the terms or labels Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E stand for or might not be too familiar with the difference between the two in terms of features and capabilities. Nevertheless, to understand how these two are different despite being under the same IEEE standard, take note of the following:
1. Frequency Bands
Devices that can connect to a wireless local area network use a particular frequency within the electromagnetic spectrum. Those that are labeled with Wi-Fi 6 certification can utilize either the 2.4 GHz band or 5 GHz band. A smartphone with this certification can connect to a wireless router that supports either or both frequency bands. The Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6. Devices with a Wi-Fi 6E certification can connect to either one of the three frequency bands. These are the 2.4 GHz band, 5 GHz band, and 6 GHz band.
Take note that Bluetooth uses the frequency bands between 2.402 GHz and 2.480 GHz range. Some Zigbee implementations use the 2.4 GHz band. The sub-6 GHz 5G technology standard and the more specific C-band 5G implementation use frequencies within the 3.3 GHz and 4.2 GHz range. It is also important to note that wireless communication technology is based on electromagnetic radiation, and wireless communication standards and capabilities are largely based on designated frequencies and wavelengths.
2. Network Performance
Remember that the aforementioned bands pertain to frequencies within the electromagnetic spectrum. These frequencies are above the traditional domains of radio waves and within the microwave domain. Microwaves have higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths than radio waves. It is also important to underscore the fact that lower frequencies translate to longer wavelengths. This means that the 2.4 GHz band has a longer wavelength while the 5 GHz band and 6 GHz bands have shorter wavelengths.
The frequencies and wavelengths of a wireless communication standard translate to theoretical speed and propagation. Longer wavelengths transfer data at lower speeds but can travel farther. Shorter wavelengths have faster data transfer speeds but can travel at short distances and are prone to physical obstructions. Hence, based on this, the 2.4 GHz wireless network band is slower but it can travel farther while the 5 GHz band and 6 GHz band have faster data transmission speeds but have a shorter reach.
3. Number of Channels
Wi-Fi 6 is capable of utilizing a single 160 MHz channel within the 5 GHz frequency range by aggregating eight individual 20 MHz channels. This enhances data transmission speeds and the overall quality of the wireless network. However, because of this aggregation, it also diminishes the pool of channels available for other devices. On the other hand, Wi-Fi 6E can harness as many as seven non-overlapping 160 MHz channels in the 6 GHz frequency spectrum, which are exclusively designated for Wi-Fi 6E devices.
It is important to reiterate that the channels in Wi-Fi 6E are non-overlapping and are dedicated exclusively to devices with Wi-Fi 6E certification. These compatible communication devices have access to a larger pool of channels without interfering with devices using Wi-Fi 6 or legacy Wi-Fi standards. This translates to a cleaner and less congested wireless local area networking experience. The 6 GHz band is a more suitable choice in situations or environments in which high-speed and low-interference wireless connection is crucial.
4. Backward Compatibility
Another notable difference between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E is backward compatibility. The former is backward compatible with earlier Wi-Fi standards such as Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4. It is worth mentioning that the fifth standard uses the 5 GHz frequency band while the fourth standard uses the 2.4 GHz band. This means that Wi-Fi 6 devices and older Wi-Fi routers can connect with each other. The difference between the sixth standard with the fifth and fourth standards is that it has a higher maximum link rate of between 574 and 9608 megabits per second.
The 6 GHz frequency band of the extended sixth-generation Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi 6E standard is inaccessible to devices with older Wi-Fi standards. For example, while a smartphone with Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 can still connect to either the 2.4 GHz band or 5 GHz band of a Wi-Fi 6E router, it would not be able to connect to its 6 GHz band. A smartphone with Wi-Fi 6E certification can also connect to either the 2.4 GHz band or 5 GHz band of Wi-Fi routers based on older standards but the option to connect to a 6 GHz band is absent.
Takeaway: A Comparison Between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E
Both the Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are based on the same IEEE 802.11ax wireless local area network standard. These two also have a maximum link rate of between 574 and 9608 megabits per second. The main difference between the two is that the former is a dual-band wireless network standard that connects to either the 2.4 GHz frequency band or 5 frequency GHz band while the latter is an extended tri-band wireless network standard that includes the addition of the 6 GHz frequency on top of the 5 GHz and the 2.4 GHz band.
The aforementioned means that Wi-Fi 6E is theoretically better than Wi-Fi 6. It also offers some future-proofing. Connecting to a 6 GHz band can provide faster data transmission speed, higher bandwidth, and lower latency. It is still worth mentioning that this frequency band has a shorter range and is more prone to physical obstructions than the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands. Routers based on the fifth-generation standard are still pervasive in homes and offices although most devices are now equipped with Wi-Fi 6 certifications.