One of the current hot Wi-Fi topics is 6 GHz also called “Wi-Fi 6E”. Unfortunately, most of the information currently circulating on the internet and at events refers to the FCC and thus the USA. Together with Philipp Ebbecke we compiled the current status for Europe.
Philipp represents the LANCOM Systems GmbH at the Wi-Fi Alliance and takes part in the European conferences on Wi-Fi spectrum. He can therefore provide the latest information at first hand.
The contribution is divided into multiple sections. We start with background information on spectrum, then go on to discuss possible regulations on 6 GHz Wi-Fi in Europe and end with a summary. For less technically interested readers, I recommend to start directly with the summary.
Why do we actually need new spectrum?
We already have two frequency bands, why do we need more?
Wi-Fi has been experiencing great growth for years, but the spectrum, i.e. the available channels, was last expanded almost 16 years ago. Especially in the last 10 years, WLAN has transported more and more services and data due to the increasing spread of purely wireless devices like smartphones & tablets. This increased demand for data volumes can only be satisfied to a limited extent with the currently available spectrum, especially if more latency-critical applications such as Virtual/Augmented Reality (VR/AR) want to send and receive large amounts of data quickly in the future. Thus we are now at a point where the spectrum severely limits the capacity and quality of experience.
On the other hand, there is a political objective, namely that Europe should become a “gigabit society” in the near future. In Wi-Fi we can only achieve the throughput of 1 Gigabit/sec if we use at least 80 MHz wide channels for a Wi-Fi 6 client (2-streams / antennas assumed) (see below). However, especially in the enterprise environment (offices, shopping malls, stadiums, airports, etc.) we often configure the lowest channel bandwidths (20/40 MHz) in order to be able to reuse the existing channels frequently (keyword: co-channel interference). Let’s have a look at the maximum possible brutto data rates(!) for Wi-Fi 6 with 2 streams/antennas (currently common for WLAN clients):
- 20 MHz -> 286,8 Mbps
- 40 MHz -> 573,5 Mbps
- 80 MHz -> 1.201,0 Mbps
- 160 MHz -> 2.402,0 Mbps
Source: MCS Overview
It is thus clear that the gigabit, which is made available via WAN connection, can only be exploited with at least 80 MHz channels.
A look at the current spectrum, however, shows that there is no 80 MHz channel at all in the 2.4 GHz band and a very distorted picture prevails in the 5 GHz band. Without any restrictions there is only one 80 MHz channel in the 5 GHz band over the channels 36 – 48, which is also the channel that is dominated by practically all 5 GHz capable devices. In addition, there are 3 more 80 MHz channels, for which “Dynamic Frequency Selection” (DFS) is required. Wi-Fi is only a “co-user” on these channels and must keep the channel free when RADAR systems are present. Due to this restriction, there are some devices, access points and clients, that only work on the DFS-free channels.
Now that we have clarified that we need new spectrum, the next question arises:
How do we get new spectrum?
To obtain new spectrum there are local and global approaches. In the 6 GHz band, there is hope for a worldwide opening of the band for Wi-Fi, so the long and hard path has been chosen. This goes, in a simplified representation, like this:
- The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines which applications are allowed to operate on which frequency bands
- Approximately every 4 years a World Radio Conference (WRC) takes place where all nations (ITU members) negotiate the allocations
- If applications are given new spectrum or existing spectrum rules are changed, then the regulatory authorities of the countries or their regional bodies are called upon to implement these rule changes as far as possible
- In Europe, the European Commission then commissions the CEPT (European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations) to carry out research into regulatory change
- For Wi-Fi, the CEPT/ECC subdivision – Electronic Communications Committee – is responsible for technical studies and the regulatory requirements derived from them
- On the other hand, there is ETSI – European Telecommunications Standards Institute – which publishes a standard with rules for the CE label to be obtained by products for the European market
- ETSI is independent but works closely with CEPT to translate CEPT requirements and rules into testable standards
- The European countries are represented in CEPT and ETSI by their respective network agencies (Germany: Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA), Austria: RTR, Switzerland: OFCOM)
In general, the following statement applies within the European Union:
The European Commission can mandate the European Conference on Postal and Telecommunications (CEPT) to carry out studies and other preparatory activities to harmonise the use of the radio spectrum in Europe. The co-operative interaction of CEPT with Commission-led initiatives has been a key factor in the development of wireless technologies in Europe.
However, not all European countries are part of the European Union. The most prominent examples of non-EU countries are Switzerland, Norway and Great Britain. However, these countries are part of the CEPT, which means that a uniform European market is still guaranteed. Side note: The CEPT comprises a total of 48 countries, including Turkey and Russia!
There should now be a rough idea of how we get new spectrum. Now comes the other interesting question:
What spectrum do we get? (still in negotiation)
The 6 GHz band, which is provided for Wi-Fi by the ITU, extends over 1,200 MHz. It starts at 5.925 MHz and ends at 7.125 MHz. In Europe, the release of the lower 500 MHz, i.e. from 5.925 – 6.425 MHz, is currently being negotiated. Since a certain distance (20 MHz in total) must still be maintained to the services in contiguous bands for protection, we probably have 480 MHz available for Wi-Fi channels.
So far we have the following bands available:
- 2,4 GHz: with max. 100mW (20 dBm) on channels 1 – 13: 2.301 – 2.483 MHz (82 MHz)
- 5 GHz: 5.170 – 5.875 MHz (usable 520 MHz)
- 5 GHz Subband-1 with max. 200mW (23 dBm) on channels 36 – 64: 5.170 – 5.330 MHz (160 MHz)
- 5 GHz Subband-2 with max. 1000mW (30 dBm) on channels 100 – 140: 5.490 – 5. 710 MHz (220 MHz)
- 5 GHz Subband-3 with max. 25mW (14 dBm) on channels 149 – 173: 5.735 – 5.875 MHz (140 MHz)
Whether and when investigations will be carried out in Europe on the remaining 700 MHz between 6.425 – 7.125 MHz is currently uncertain.
What rules apply in this spectrum? (still under negotiation)
According to the current status, there will be two different categories of equipment with different requirements. The most important distinguishing features are transmission power and “portability”.
- „Low Power Indoor“
- Only allowed inside buildings
- Access the full 480 MHz spectrum
- Transmission power: max. 200mW (23 dBm) EIRP
- Access Point:
- Power must be supplied via cable (AC/DC or PoE)
- Battery operation is prohibited
- Must be able to determine the country of operation
- Battery operation is allowed
- „Very Low Power Portable“
- May be used indoors and outdoors
- Spectrum is divided into two categories:
- A: 400 MHz (6.025 – 6.525 MHz)
- B: 80 MHz (5.945 – 6.025 MHz)
- Transmission power: max. 25mW (14 dBm) EIRP
- There are two types of equipment based on the spectrum categories:
- May only use spectrum A
- Must be able to determine the country of operation
- May use Spektrum A+B
- Must be able to determine the country of operation
- However, must take into account that countries may prohibit operation on spectrum B
The usual Wi-Fi installations will fall under “Low Power Indoor”. The category “Very Low Power Portable”, on the other hand, is new. It targets gadgets such as VR/AR glasses, which could be connected to the smartphone via Wi-Fi to carry bigger loads of data than e.g. Bluetooth. An important note here is that, unlike in the 5 GHz band, there is no DFS!
When will we receive the new spectrum? (planned)
Due to the division between EU and non-EU countries within CEPT, there are two different time frames.
- EU countries are obliged to transfer the rules into national legislation within 6 months after final adoption of the rules within CEPT and adoption by the European Commission
- Earliest start (expected): March 2021
- In contrast, non-EU countries can implement the rules within 2 years, but they are not obliged to
- Earliest start (expected): November 2020
As each country has different interests and existing installations in 6 GHz, the release of spectrum in Europe is characterised by many, intensive negotiations. As a result, the negotiations are generally slower and more fragmented than, for example, the FCC for the USA, which has to set up rules for only one country with just two contiguous countries.
Besides the provision of the spectrum, there is a second point in the time schedule: The CE approval of the devices. It is expected that ETSI will provide a certifiable, draft standard before the end of this year. A draft standard allows an individual release of a product, a process which is associated with high costs. However, this ensures early market access for manufacturers. If there is a final standard in the first half of 2021, all manufacturers will be able to market their devices with a low-cost self-declaration.
The European mass market for Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band is therefore unlikely to be on the horizon before Q2 2021.
What will be the challenges?
The new frequency band will be equipped with an independent radio module similar to the 2.4 GHz & 5 GHz bands. Thus, access points will need three instead of two radio modules in the future. This is likely to have an impact on costs, heat generation and power consumption. New antennas optimized for the 6 GHz band will also be required.
It remains to be seen how manufacturers will deal with these challenges. The authors assume that the first 6 GHz capable devices will be reserved for the high-end and that the mass will continue to focus on 2.4 & 5 GHz. If today’s IEEE 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6 access points can still be operated with 802.3af to a limited extent, 802.3at is already recommended. For another radio module, it can be assumed that at least 802.3at is required and 802.3bt is recommended.
These are all parameters that pose a challenge and are therefore an additional limiting factor in implementation. We are already curious how the manufacturers of mobile devices will deal with this challenge. In addition to costs, factors such as size and battery life are also important.
Within Europe, it is currently assumed that there will be a block of 500 MHz (5,925 – 6,425 MHz). Within this spectrum 480 MHz are available.
This results in the following number of non-overlapping channels:
- 24 x 20 MHz
- 12 x 40 MHz
- 6 x 80 MHz
- 3 x 160 MHz
These 24 x 20 MHz channels do not require DFS! In today’s 5 GHz band most devices support 4 DFS-free and 15 DFS-afflicted 20 MHz channels.
The transmit power is limited to 23 dBm/EIRP, which is 3 dBm more than we have available today in the 2.4GHz spectrum and corresponds to the transmit power on the 5 GHz channels 36 – 64.
A distinction must be made between EU and non-EU countries. The latter do not have to implement the requirements.
- “non-EU” countries will start the release at the earliest in November 2020 after acceptance by the CEPT/ECC. The time window for this is 24 months
- “EU” countries, on the other hand, must implement the new rules within 6 months of their adoption by the European Commission. This time window probably starts in March 2021
The exact start date still depends on the adoption of the agreements reached.
As far as the manufacturers are concerned, the new chips are already available due to the lead of the FCC. However, there is currently no ETSI standard to obtain the CE label and thus the European approval for the products.
There are generally two possibilities to approve products for the market.
- Based on a “stable draft” of the standard:
- Enables manufacturers to find a testing laboratory that tests & releases the product based on the “stable draft”. This is very expensive, but ensures an early market access with a small amount of products.
- Based on the “final version” of the standard:
- Once the standard has been adopted by ETSI, the standard allows manufacturers to place products on the market by self-declaration. This process is only possible at a much later stage, but it is cheaper. It is used for the wide range of products.
Even if the first devices can come onto the market from Q1 2021, this does not mean that we will see the products in all areas. Unlike the move from Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), this is not just a RF module upgrade. Wi-Fi 6E or 6GHz is an additional wireless module, similar to 2.4GHz & 5GHz.
Additional radio modules are associated with additional costs.
- An additional radio module is required in the access point
- Additional antennas are required for this radio module
- Additional power is required for this radio module
These and other factors strongly influence the price of new equipment. Even if this new spectrum brings many positive factors with it, it will probably be clearly reflected in pricing. It is likely that the manufacturers will reserve the 6 GHz for high-end access points for the time being.
So it remains to be seen when the wrap will take place. Even today, many manufacturers and users still rely on 2.4 GHz alone, despite the technical advantages of 5 GHz.
If we now consider that the 5 GHz band has been “released” for 802.11a by CEPT since mid-2002, it has taken a very long time for this new spectrum to become established.
Personally, we see first installations for 2021, but these will be individual smaller projects. Another question remains: When will the first clients appear?
What happens next?
The next meeting will take place at the beginning of October. In this meeting the rules for the spectrum will be discussed again. After this meeting, we will update this entry.