AT&T sees Wi-Fi 6E potential for in-home wireless backhaul

AT&T hasn’t detailed plans for introducing Wi-Fi 6E capabilities to its broadband customers, but Josh Goodell, head of broadband technology at AT&T, said the carrier sees value in the enhanced speeds and capabilities, with potential to use the 6 GHz band for in-home wireless backhaul.

Goodell, VP of broadband technology management, discussed 6E technology during a virtual keynote session Monday at the Fierce Wi-Fi Summit.

“When I think about Wi-Fi 6E I think it’s the next logical step in standards evolution,” Goodell said, adding AT&T is working on timing elements of when it might introduce the capabilities. “I think the new spectrum can be a game changer, especially when consumer electronics adopt the 6E standard.”

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While he declined to disclose if or when AT&T will introduce a Wi-Fi 6E router, he said the benefits are clear particularly as the 6 GHz band triples the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi. The FCC in 2020 voted to free up 1,200 MHz in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use.

It’s worth noting that AT&T is an incumbent user of the 6 GHz band, largely for fixed microwave links that support mobile backhaul and telecom landline services, as well as public safety and critical infrastructure. It brought a court challenge against the FCC order, arguing the agency should’ve required Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) systems for all unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz band to protect against interference, from not only higher power outdoor operations but indoor unlicensed devices as well. Before the new year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ultimately struck down AT&T’s argument and ruled in favor of the FCC.

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Still, despite the challenge, AT&T isn’t ignoring Wi-Fi 6E, which is the designation for devices capable of tapping the newly opened 6 GHz band.

Aside from client devices, one area Goodell highlighted as particularly interesting is the use of 6 GHz for in-home wireless backhaul to connect multiple extenders or boosters, which help provide whole-home coverage with a mesh network setup, to the gateway router.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to potentially use this technology for backhaul in the home, the wireless backhaul capability, just given the sheer amount of throughput that it can enable,” Goodell said.

Today extenders or boosters can be connected physically, such as ethernet, or with existing Wi-Fi bands, he noted. But the 6 GHz band offers a significantly less congested channel as devices are only starting to come to market.

“There won’t be a lot of client devices that are going to be tapping into that 6 GHz band initially, so that backhaul or that wireless connection between an extender and a gateway is going to be like a superhighway that will be wide open,” Goodell continued. “Super high bandwidth that I think can be used really effectively in those specific use cases.”

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While AT&T is a major wireless carrier and touting new multi-gig home broadband capabilities enabled by fiber, Wi-Fi performance is still key for customer experience as it often represents “the last hop” connection, Goodell noted. Three key components AT&T is focused on for a good Wi-Fi experience include reliability, speed and value.

6E timing tied to device adoption

For AT&T, the timing of when Wi-Fi 6E capabilities will be introduced is tied closely to device adoption because the carrier wants customers to be able to utilize the new technologies, according to Goodell.

He cited expectations for 5% of consumer devices to be 6E-capable this year, doubling to around 10% by 2023. Samsung in early 2021 was the first to debut a Wi-Fi 6E enabled smartphone with the S21 Ultra.

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Asked whether supply chain issues could impact adoption of Wi-Fi 6E, he said the constraints wouldn’t be limited to just extenders or boosters, but client devices as well. A supply chain squeeze on semiconductors and other electronic components is creating an environment where AT&T now needs to look 18-24 months out to ensure it meets demand of customers, he noted which is much longer than historically. Goodell said device OEMs, whether its smartphones, smart TVs or PCs, are dealing with the same dynamic, where timing is hard to predict, but he expects some impact in terms of how devices get introduced over time.

“I can’t imagine that it would not impact that segment of the market, just as I’ve seen the challenges impact every other segment of the market,” he said.  

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A recent market report from Dell’Oro on enterprise class wireless LAN projects supply constraints will be a “pin in the balloon” for Wi-Fi 6E.

“Although manufacturers launched Wi-Fi 6E products in mid-2021, products are either not available, or they are in very limited supply.  Supply constraints have prompted manufacturers to focus on enabling the availability of popular models by re-designing these models with components that are more readily available,” said Tam Dell’Oro, founder, CEO and Wireless LAN analyst, in a press release.

“In addition to supply constraints inhibiting the rate of adoption of Wi-Fi 6E, we have learned that compliance with regulations to operate within the 6 GHz spectrum are slowing the deployment process,” Dell’Oro continued. “Compliance processes have yet to be standardized and easy to implement.”