This piece originally appeared in Human Infrastructure Magazine, a weekly newsletter. It’s available for free when you subscribe to the Packet Pushers’ Ignition membership site.
Wi-Fi 6, also known as IEEE 802.11ax and “High Efficiency” wireless, is focused on improving throughput for wireless networks with a high client density. For organizations that care about wireless user experience, Wi-Fi 6 should be keenly interesting.
One key consideration for organizations considering Wi-Fi 6 is the simultaneous rise of 5G. Will Wi-Fi 6 and 5G prove to be competitive or complementary? The answer is not immediately obvious, and might actually be both at the same time.
Wi-Fi 6 Business Drivers
As Wi-Fi 6 does not create a huge leap in maximum speeds, what are the business drivers likely to be for Wi-Fi 6?
The first is client throughput, especially in environments densely packed with wireless clients. OFDMA, the most compelling new technology in the Wi-Fi 6 specification in my opinion, means that more wireless clients will be able to get on and off the air more quickly.
As business and home wireless device density increases over time, OFDMA will matter more and more. Retail spaces, stadiums, and factories come immediately to my mind as the biggest beneficiaries, although higher ed and office parks should also benefit.
The second driver is IoT. This is the corollary to the “client throughput” point above, as wireless IoT devices will add more data to the airwaves. Also interesting to IoT deployments is Wi-Fi 6’s Target Wait Time (TWT). TWT lets wireless devices sleep longer between radio power cycles, and should improve IoT device battery life.
For more on the technology side, check out The Technology Case For Wi-Fi 6.
Should You Deploy Wi-Fi 6 Now?
If you are in a wireless refresh cycle, Wi-Fi 6 should be on your mind. But should you deploy Wi-Fi 6 now?
Reasons To Deploy Now
First, enterprise Wi-Fi 6 products have been announced, and more announcements are coming. Radio chipsets are out there. A significant amount of engineering and integration work has been done by the industry. Major vendors have partnerned. Much validation testing has been completed by the likes of Cisco, Intel, and Samsung. While still on the leading edge, there’s not too much risk in adopting Wi-Fi 6.
Second, by adopting Wi-Fi 6 today, you are setting yourself up for the future. As more Wi-Fi 6 clients come on board, network efficiency will improve. “Future-proofing” is perhaps too strong a word–this is technology, after all–but communicates the general idea.
Third, Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible with aging clients. Therefore, you can swap your existing wireless access points with Wi-Fi 6 APs, and not have to worry about orphaning old radios. Those old clients won’t help your wireless network become more efficient, but at least they’ll still work.
Reasons To Hold Off
First, there aren’t that many Wi-Fi 6 clients out there yet. That means there won’t be much out there speaking OFDMA. In my opinion, OFDMA is the big win, especially for dense environments.
I don’t think it will take too long for Wi-Fi 6 clients to come to market, however. Samsung has made some announcements, as has Intel. But really, Apple is the tipping point. When Apple announces a phone with Wi-Fi 6, it might be time to take Wi-Fi 6 more seriously.
Second, even when Wi-Fi 6 clients do come to market, serious market penetration will take years. Case in point–I’m still rockin’ an iPhone 6S+, and I have no plans to replace it. And do you think those IoT devices that were installed last year are going to be replaced just to get a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade? Nope.
Third, 5G is coming to market. 5G coverage footprints will grow starting in late 2019 and 2020. What will the impact of 5G be on wireless deployments? I don’t have a prediction yet, other than to say there will be some impact.
I can imagine a world where working off of a 5G-capable tower is plenty good enough, obviating the need to connect to the local Wi-Fi. If that’s true, securing the endpoint becomes a very different problem for enterprises–and not in a bad way.
Why onboard an endpoint to the local wireless if what that endpoint needs is in the public cloud anyway? Keep that 5G client at arm’s length. Reduce the risk of that device being a potential container for data exfiltration or bastion host for malware.
Wi-Fi 6 talking heads with products to sell are going to position 5G as a complementary technology, but I think 5G will often be a competing technology. However, this will be time and geography specific. 5G will take years to roll out. In addition, 5G has the same client problem that Wi-Fi 6 does–there aren’t any to speak of.
Finally, the Wi-Fi 6 standard will not be ratified until late 2019, or (speculatively) early 2020. While the standard is more or less fully-formed, hardware is being manufactured, and interoperability testing is on-going, the fact remains that the official specification is not yet settled.
While future changes are likely to be nits and nuances, there is some risk that hardware manufactured today could be negatively impacted by a standards tweak tomorrow. I believe this to be a low risk, but folks that like to play it safe will want to consider this point.
Would I Deploy Wi-Fi 6 Right Now?
My strategy for Wi-Fi 6 would be business dependent. For organizations with a density problem, Wi-Fi 6 would be on my shopping list today. I would bring in Wi-Fi 6 APs to test my specific application and client mix. I would attempt to make Wi-Fi 6 make sense for my environment. I believe that Wi-Fi 6 will solve problems for certain companies. I’m just as convinced that it won’t change the user experience much for others.
If I was running an aging 802.11n wireless infrastructure, I’d be planning a refresh no matter what. Would I go with the now proven Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) access points, or move into the Wi-Fi 6 world? I would definitely lean towards Wi-Fi 6, but I’d wait and watch over the next several months. If 802.11n was still working for me, I’d be doing my own market analysis on Wi-Fi 6 as products come to market and the standard finishes baking in the IEEE’s oven.
If I was running a Wi-Fi 5 infrastructure, I’d be getting up to speed on Wi-Fi 6. It’s worth being literate on what it brings to the table.
However, my instinct tells me that without the client density problem, I doubt I could make a clear case to the business to replace a properly functioning, well-designed Wi-Fi 5 installation.
Is Wi-Fi 6 better than Wi-Fi 5? Yes. Will Wi-Fi 6 be better for my environment? That’s a different question and one that’s tricky to answer. In the absence of a clear business advantage, I’d be plan to get more mileage from Wi-Fi 5.