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A Look at Wi-Fi 6 Regulatory Domains

The 6 GHz band is being approved around the globe by different regulatory entities. What are the regulatory domains, and what do they mean for Wi-Fi?

Key takeaways:

  • In the US, the FCC has approved 1,200 MHz of spectrum, but in other regions, like the EU, only 500 MHz of spectrum is allowed.
  • The Modulation Coding Scheme (MCS) index “is an existing industry metric based on several parameters of a Wi-Fi connection between a client device and a wireless access point … that simplifies our understanding of data rates.”
  • The MCS index, which shows how fast Wi-Fi could theoretically be under the new protocols, is getting more complex under these standards.
  • Wi-Fi 6 has great advantages but is now the time to upgrade? You may be able to get much more out of your network by optimizing it with digital experience monitoring software.

Wireless internet has now been around for almost 25 years, and it keeps improving with each new protocol iteration. In 2020, the FCC announced that it would allow 1,200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use in the US, making enough spectrum available to enhance connectivity options and performance significantly. Thus, Wi-Fi 6 became a reality here.

However, there are different regulatory domains for Wi-Fi 6, and it’s not yet been approved for unlicensed use around the globe. This guide explains the regulatory domains and what they mean for Wi-Fi in the US and internationally, along with some of the novel complexity of the new spectrum.

The Wi-Fi 6 regulatory domains

While each country around the globe can create and enforce its own tech regulations, many smaller countries adopt guidelines from agencies in larger countries. There are four major regulatory bodies making decisions about the use of unlicensed bands in the majority of the world:

  • The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI)
  • Japan’s Telecom Engineering Center (TELEC)
  • South Korea’s Korea Communications Commission (KCC)

These entities create regulatory domains that determine whether Wi-Fi 6 can be used and how much MHz of spectrum is available under the 6 GHz band.

In the US, the FCC has approved 1,200 MHz of spectrum, but only 500 MHz has been approved in many other countries. Here are the details in the US and EU:

FCC-US:

The FCC has defined the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (UNII), which has eight ranges. UNII 5 through 8 are for W-Fi 6. Let’s look at UNII 5 for low-power channels to show just how much spectrum is available:

  • 59 20 MHz channels within 6 GHz 
  • 29 40 MHz channels within 6 GHz
  • 14 80 MHz channels within 6 GHz
  • 7 160 MHz channels within 6 GHz
  • 3 320 MHz channels within 6 GHz

When designing a good Wi-Fi network, the simple rule is to use the widest channel you can until you can't. But in practice, the right channel depends on the antennae you have, the access point (AP) locations, the walls and structural elements, the number of devices, and other factors. So, within one organization, a building might have to move down to a 20 MHz channel to minimize interference since more channels are available than in 40 MHz. Even though the frequency is wider in the 40s, interference can significantly reduce Wi-Fi performance.

Note that the above is a specific spectrum for the “low power indoor device” class, and there are also additional standard power guidelines. 

Our very low power spectrum available in the US is 1,200 MHz down at 14 decibel milliwatts (dBm), though that standard is still under review. We can't use anything outside of UNII 5 to UNII 7 under the standard power device class; only 5 and 7 at 36 dBm. So, in standard power, there are fewer channels to deal with than those in low power.

EU-ETSI:

  • The EU only has 500 MHz of spectrum approved under the ETSI, so users have a smaller subset. However, remember that even though it's not as high as the US's 1,200, this is still a significant amount of spectrum to work with. 
  • Some of these other domains don't have as much spectrum because there are existing incumbents, such as common carriers and fixed satellite services, and the regulatory bodies must ensure that these incumbents are protected from interference. Thus, regulators implement more stringent rules on unlicensed use. 

The regions that currently have 500 MHz of approved spectrum are:

  • EU
  • United Arab Emirates
  • UK 

In contrast, these countries employ standards stipulating 1,200 MHz:

  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Saudi Arabia
  • South Korea 
  • US

Many other countries like Egypt, India, and Japan are still on the cusp of rolling out 6 GHz and following particular spectrum standards very soon.

The effects of Wi-Fi 6 on the MCS Index

The modulation coding scheme (MCS) index provides information about modulation, coding scheme, channel width, and guard interval (the space between symbols being transmitted). This index has been used to enable understanding data rates for a decade now, but new Wi-Fi protocols bring more complex schema to understand. 

For example, encoding digital data for 802.11ax is more complex than previous Wi-Fi iterations. In the previous 802.11n standard, the MCS index only went up to a score of 7, and it went up to 9 in 802.11ac. 

But in 802.11ax, the MCS now ranges to 11 because a 1024 QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) was added, whereas the MCS index at 9 is only 256 QAM. Quadrature amplitude modulation “enables an analog signal to efficiently transmit digital information. It also provides the means by which an operator transmits more bits in the same time period, which effectively increases the bandwidth.” The latest Wi-Fi scheme also has more types of guard intervals and channel widths.

The MCS index provides information about data rates and more, and there are many new details for it to draw conclusions from. But interpreting it all can become very complex, even for engineers. Nevertheless, there are a few key things to understand about Wi-Fi 6 and what kind of spatial streams and channel widths will be realistic.

If you’re running below 64 QAM, the Wi-Fi is having some kind of challenge; any client or AP today can do better than that. On the other hand, if you can sustain an MCS that has better than 64 QAM, the Wi-Fi is pretty healthy. So, that one measure can tell you a great deal about how everything is performing at a given time. 

Additionally, a pretty good target is two spatial streams with 64 QAM with 40 MHz at 344 Mbps. This is a realistic scenario for throughput speeds in 6 GHz. This configuration would allow 29 channels in the 1,200 MHz regions and 12 channels in the 500 MHz regions.

A better scenario under 6 GHz would be 256 QAM, two spatial streams, and 40 MHz at 459 Mbps. And the next step up would be 1024 QAM, but it's doubtful that clients will be in that QAM (though if they were, it could lead to 574 Mbps).

Wi-Fi 6 clearly brings new opportunities for better Wi-Fi, but it also brings new complexities to consider when optimizing a network and reading the MCS index. This is one of the reasons 7SIGNAL developed the 7MCS Wi-Fi experience score, which is simpler to understand and use than the MCS index. Read about the MCS and 7MCS in more detail here.

Turn to 7SIGNAL with questions about new Wi-Fi standards

Each new Wi-Fi standard and set of usage approvals brings new considerations for engineers and network managers. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to keep up with the latest developments, nor understand how they will impact a WLAN, clients, and organization. 

7SIGNAL delivers a wireless experience monitoring solution that provides 24/7 visibility into the network and how end-users experience the connection. The platform provides real-time insights so you can remain proactive in solving issues. And we are here to help you optimize and maintain essential connectivity, whatever new standards and challenges arise.

7SIGNAL® is the leader in wireless experience monitoring, providing insight into wireless networks and control over Wi-Fi performance so businesses and organizations can thrive. Our cloud-based wireless network monitoring platform continually tests and measures Wi-Fi performance at the edges of the network, enabling fast solutions to digital experience issues and stronger connections for mission-critical users, devices, and applications. Learn more at www.7signal.com.