• Dean Anthony Gratton

post-Covid19: The Magic of the Unlicensed Airwaves

In my last year’s column, “20 Years of Wi-Fi: What did we ever do without it?” we celebrated 20 years of Wi-Fi and I talked about the new standard offered to us by theWi-Fi Alliance, namely 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6.

The “E” denotes 6GHz support for new products

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) technology offering numerous enhancements on its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11ac. The enormous popularity of Wi-Fi technology over the last 20 years has been incredible, where most consumers readily expect most, if not all, shops, bars and restaurants to have it. You might recall that Wi-Fi 6 was developed to primarily overcome network congestion due to the overwhelming population of connected devices, whether that is in the home or in a shopping center, for example. Well, I’ve simplified it somewhat, but with so many devices eager to connect to the internet, a new standard was developed and is now used to better orchestrate that all-important connection, boasting faster throughput and permitting up to four times the number of devices when compared to Wi-Fi 5.


Now the label Wi-Fi 6E has emerged – hang on, didn’t the Wi-Fi Alliance drop the so-called “alphabet soup” and become more consumer-friendly with incremental updates? Never mind! Wi-Fi 6E denotes an extension to the Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) standard, which specifically alludes to its capability to support the new 6GHz frequency. So, whilst Wi-Fi 6 currently supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, the additional ‘E’ was added by the Alliance to allow consumers to easily distinguish capabilities with newer Wi-Fi-enabled products. 


The magic of the unlicensed airwaves

In fact, the American telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has only recently approved access to the new spectrum. Apparently, the FCC members deliberated for some time prior to unanimously voting on the positive decision to allow access to 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band. The FCC only made this decision last month (April 23) where the new spectrum will be available in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use.


In a statement issued by the FCC on behalf of its chairman, Ajit Pai, he touches on the difficulties during this period that we all are collectively experiencing and acknowledges that “the Coronavirus pandemic has temporarily changed nearly every aspect of our lives.” Pai further adds that during this period, whilst we are in lockdown, most family members are using numerous devices within their household at the same time through the “magic of the unlicensed airwaves.” Wi-Fi has helped us to remain connected to our friends, families and colleagues. Pai continues: “Even before anyone had heard of Covid-19, Wi-Fi already carried more than half of the internet’s traffic, and offloading mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi was vital to keeping our cellular networks from being overwhelmed. In a very real sense, Wi-Fi is the fabric that binds together all our digital devices.”


A huge benefit to consumers and innovators

Pai’s sentiment is correct and accurately observed, yet as a consequence of Wi-Fi’s popularity, it has the potential to inadvertently limit its own capacity to perform with the smoothness and ease of connectivity we have become accustomed to. You see, with increasing number of devices in circulation, which will inevitably populate further, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s decision to provide support through the 6GHz band will undoubtedly extend Wi-Fi’s longevity in the consumer and enterprise market for many, many years to come. 


Pai confirms: “Wi-Fi will be even more important in the years to come. By one estimate, the economic value created by Wi-Fi in the United States is projected to double by 2023 – reaching nearly $1 trillion.” The FCC chair continues: “By doing this, we are effectively increasing the amount of mid-band spectrum available for Wi-Fi by almost a factor of five. This will be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation.” 


Until next time…

Like I said before, Wi-Fi might be its own worst enemy, since the technology lends itself quite aptly and seamlessly to numerous devices and their ability to connect with ease to the internet. The next generation Wi-Fi technology purports greater throughput with better performance and during this time we have never relied on technology so much to keep us all connected. The new “future of work and engagement” beckons in our post-Covid-19 era where I hope a new way of thinking brings about a new way of working and engagement.


We have also witnessed improved air quality with a drop in pollution, which raises the question: “What were we doing?” and “Can we change the way we do things in the future?” We are all debating what the new normal is but, perhaps, it already sits before us! The large number of coronavirus-related deaths is unimaginable and utterly heart breaking, but out of this despair comes the hope that we can garner a new sense of value while reminding ourselves of the intrinsic fragility of life. By truly embracing what really matters and with technologies such as Wi-Fi enabling us all to keep connected, we can perhaps begin to make that change.


So this is where a “wrestling with the question of what really matters” Dr. G signs off.



Originally published in Technically Speaking.

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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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