The tech industry is a hype machine. The promise of something newer, faster, and better is unmistakably alluring. It’s why we fork over hundreds of dollars for the new iPhone even when our one-generation-old iPhone works perfectly fine.
Wi-Fi is no exception. Yes, it is the most ubiquitous but invisible technology out there, and it underpins everything from email systems in an office building to instant replay in a sports stadium to insulin pumps in a hospital. But news of the next Wi-Fi generation — Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax — has created a sense of renewed excitement as pundits, analysts, and vendors are enthusiastically claiming how much faster, more secure, and more reliable Wi-Fi 6 will be. But it begs the question…is it all hype, or is it real?
Some hype is just noise — but some new technologies really do transform their market. By finally gaining a megaphone, Wi-Fi 6 is one of those technologies.
The short answer: Wi-Fi 6 is the real deal, and it will completely change the way Wi-Fi works moving forward. Traditionally, a Wi-Fi radio could only talk to a single client at a time, whereas a dual radio AP could communicate with two clients at the same time. Keep in mind the difference between “clients supported” with “communication.” Most APs can simultaneously support a hundred or more clients, but each radio can only communicate to one client at a time. Through Wi-Fi’s evolution — 11a, b, g, n, ac — Wi-Fi data rates became faster, but they were still limited to communicating with one client at a time per radio.
A new protocol within Wi-Fi 6 changes this: Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA. This protocol allows a single radio to communicate to multiple clients simultaneously, which is a massive development as it allows access points to accommodate more traffic and devices, reduce latency, and improve overall quality of service. With this enhancement, in addition to its improved capacity and coverage to support more connected devices, Wi-Fi 6 has the potential to completely transform enterprises and end-user experiences.
But not all Wi-Fi is created equal.
When vendors see a hot market opportunity such as this one, there’s a tendency to rush to cash in as quickly as possible, which has serious consequences. Take Internet of Things (IoT) as an example. When IoT started to gain steam, we saw a flood of device makers rush to market. Hasty product development and testing resulted in a slew of cheap, insecure devices — creating systemic vulnerabilities that enterprises are still trying to resolve.
We do not want the same dynamic to play out with Wi-Fi 6, where enterprises are smacked with products that are unfit for market. But some vendors, in a rush to deliver an 802.11ax product, selected Wi-Fi chipsets that were premature in the technology evolution, from manufacturers that were also rushing to ship first-generation 11ax products. As a result, we have products that are missing a key 11ax component — full OFDMA downlink and uplink capabilities — and will thus never meet Wi-Fi 6 certification requirements. And unfortunately, it’s a fundamental hardware issue — not something that can be resolved in software.
Vet your vendors.
So even though the IEEE standard is set and vendors know the mandatory requirements for Wi-Fi 6, it’s ultimately up to customers to ensure they’re carefully vetting their vendors. In reading data sheets, look out for words like “11ax compatible” or “Wi-Fi 6 compliant.” These are intentionally misleading! Instead, you need to look for “Wi-Fi 6 certified” or “certifiable.” This statement ensures their product will meet Wi-Fi Alliance certification requirements when testing starts in Q3 of 2019. Be wary because there are many ‘11ax’ APs shipping today that will never be able to attain Wi-Fi 6 certification.
Additionally, customers looking for Wi-Fi 6 should ask potential vendors about their Wi-Fi 6 AP Power over Ethernet (PoE) requirements. Depending on architecture, you may see requirements for either 802.3at, 802.3bt, and even in some cases the need for dual PoE cable runs to support full AP functionality. In some cases, adding new Wi-Fi 6 APs with PoE requirements may require edge switch replacements at a significant cost. These are basic questions businesses should ask before any major purchasing decisions to ensure they know exactly what they’re getting, what it will take to implement, and that they’ll see true ROI.
Wi-Fi 6 is here. It’s a business imperative. But words can be misleading. Read the marketing copy and compare it to the fine print.
Part of what makes Wi-Fi such a dominant technology is that it continues to evolve. As much of a milestone 802.11n was, the newest standard – 802.11ax – has the potential to be a similar watershed moment for the industry.
In 2019, we’re already seeing Wi-Fi 6 access points that are purpose-built for high-density stadium environments, laying the groundwork for sports stadiums to provide digitally immersive applications that make fans feel like they’re on the field. Moving forward, we’re going to see the same types of cutting-edge human experiences, enabled by Wi-Fi 6 technology, across all industries.
But in a tech market so prone to hype cycles and inflated declarations, it’s important for enterprises to stay vigilant. Beware of false or misleading claims — read the fine print, ask your vendors the tough questions, and take your time to make the best purchasing decision that fits your unique business needs.
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