With the advent of WiFi 6, IT leaders across industries are considering whether their businesses require the improved speed and performance promised by the latest revision of the wireless standard. But if customer experience is any measure of business success, then it is sure to be on many IT wish lists.
Launched in late 2018, WiFi 6 began widespread certifications in the latter half of 2019, and industry watchers expect the standard to dominate wireless deployment plans through 2020 and beyond. The interest here is warranted, as this update could represent so much more than simply faster speeds. The promise of better performance and improved security also represents a significant paradigm shift in the reliance on wired networks.
“With WiFi 6, the premise is we would be living in a world where everything is connected by WiFi; it is the primary network, and it wouldn’t rely on being connected via a wired network,” says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst of ZK Research. “And if you live in a world with wireless as the primary activity, the wireless has to look and feel like wired did in the past. WiFi 6 is about quality of experience.”
WiFi 6, also known as 802.11ax, not only pledges to deliver faster data rates—reportedly somewhere between 30% and 40% faster—but this next generation of wireless also promises to provide better performance for multiple users in congested areas (think stadiums, conferences, crowded marketplaces, and the like) as well as improved power efficiency for supported devices. WiFi 6 continues to connect devices to the internet, but thanks to some technology advancements under the hood, it can connect more devices simultaneously and more efficiently—even speeding up connections in the process. This particular detail will matter to IT leaders in industries such as hospitality, media and entertainment, healthcare, education, retail, and more. For these industries, each customer, end user, and client will expect optimal performance when on wireless networks—and associate a poor experience with the business and brand providing the connectivity.
WiFi 6 could be the answer to providing a wired experience to numerous remote workers and customers attempting to access resources. Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea that businesses are worried about improving connectivity across clients in a crowded stadium, busy conference center, or other public venue might seem unrealistic. Yet the uptick in video conferencing, Google classroom meetings, and virtual collaboration across networks can strain business, government, and education resources, hurting connectivity among clients and productivity among end users.
“For most businesses, the network is the business and any weak link will be exposed and can hurt the business,” Kerravala says. “COVID-19 has created a permanent rise in the amount of video and that's crushing networks.”
With more successful, secure, and stable connections across more devices connected to the internet, WiFi 6 is poised to transform wireless connectivity.
WiFi users typically value one metric above all others—speed. But successful WiFi 6 deployments will shine a light on how other factors such as latency, low jitter, and minimal data loss are also extremely critical benefits to a superior experience. While previous advancements to the standard ticked up the speed incrementally, WiFi 6 fundamentally shifts how client devices and wireless access points (APs) compete for use of the radio frequency (RF) airtime.
“In previous versions, the way the client got on the wireless network and communicated was democratic; everyone was competing for the same airtime,” explains Jason Hintersteiner, Senior Solutions Architect with Deep Blue Communications at Comcast Business. “With WiFi 6, the process is very autocratic. The access point is controlling what is on the tunnel and which client devices are allowed to talk and when. It’s not all about speed; it is about overall more consistent and stable performance.”
So, while wireless end users and customers might think that speed is the key factor to better performance, it is actually just one element in a seamless wireless session. In fact, many wireless applications will intelligently adjust to lower bandwidth speeds by buffering, and a lot of cloud-based apps already anticipate and adjust for slower speeds. Combining speed with low latency conditions allows for a consistent connection and uninterrupted experience.
“WiFi 6 is specifically architected for high-density environments,” says Matthew FitzGerald, Senior Director of Technologies with Deep Blue Communications at Comcast Business. “Previously, WiFi was about speeding up communications, but at any time WiFi still required one transmitter and one receiver, making communication serial. WiFi 6 is primarily focused on talking to multiple client devices in parallel.”
The standards body behind WiFi 6, the IEEE, developed the update to provide superior connectivity in “device-dense” environments, creating wireless experiences that rival those of a full-fledged wired network. WiFi 6 also is complementary to cellular advancements in upcoming 5G technologies, and when properly coupled, WiFi 6 and 5G could provide the seamless wireless network nirvana many industries desire.
“WiFi 6 is a fundamental shift in architecture, and it actually takes a lot of the principles from the world of cellular where we have to worry about things like congestion and overpopulation of devices,” Kerravala says. “They took the best practices from the world of mobile cellular phones and brought that into WiFi.”
A few key features specifically enable WiFi 6—in some cases, borrowed from the cellular realm—to achieve this type of high device density, and seamless, superior connection:
Multi-User MIMO. This capability includes a set of multiple-input and multiple-output technologies for wireless communication, which in a set of end users or wireless terminals, each with one or more antennas, enables them to communicate with each other.
Basically, within WiFi 6, Multi-User MIMO enables more clients to connect on a per-antenna basis, improving overall capacity for wireless connections. MU MIMO also supports multiple uploading requests in addition to the multiple downloading requests available with current WiFiWi-Fi. That means in crowded environments more devices can access the wireless resources without encountering the congestion typically experienced with previous versions of WiFi’s first-come, first-served nature.
OFDMA. Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access is a multiple-user version of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and a key feature of WiFi 6 that allows access points to serve multiple clients at the same time. OFDMA is able to divide a WiFi channel into smaller frequency allocations called resource units (RUs) and enables an AP to communicate with multiple clients by assigning them to specific RUs. And because OFDMA is flexible, it can either assign the RUs to one client or subdivide them based on traffic and congestion level.
For example, as a public location becomes more crowded with patrons connecting to the WiFi, performance for individual clients can become unstable and slow. As more users vie for the wireless resources, OFDMA in WiFi 6 will enable more clients to simultaneously connect to a single AP.
TWT. Target Wake Time is another critical update in WiFi 6, crucially extending device battery life. Many smartphone users already know that disabling WiFi extends their phone’s battery life. That’s because the nature of WiFi until now required the components of the device related to WiFi be “awake” to receive WiFi transmissions. TWT lets devices “sleep,” or nap—not turned off, but the components receiving WiFi are not actively trying to collect the transmission—for milliseconds at a time. When compiled, this can not only deliver better throughput but also extend battery life by between 20% and 40%, according to Kerravala. Power-sensitive Internet of Things (IoT) devices that many industries use as sensors to collect data across locations would also benefit from TWT. In the consumer realm, battery-powered IoT devices such as video doorbells, for instance, could enjoy longer battery life thanks to WiFi 6.
“TWT enables clients to sleep for far longer than would normally be allowed,” FitzGerald says. This feature is most useful for IoT clients that don’t need to send and/or receive data very frequently, but it’s also useful for any battery-powered device.”
WPA3 Security. Security has long been a concern when it comes to wireless networks. But WiFi 6 aims to ease that anxiety by requiring that devices also be WPA3 security certified. WiFi Protected Access in its third version, WPA3, requires encrypted communication on public networks, such as in hotels, coffee shops, airports, and the like. The security standard is said to make it more difficult for malicious hackers to crack passwords and easier for device owners to configure security settings.
“Security is also always critical. For instance, in a hospital setting, you want to make sure sending patient telemetry information is as secure as possible,” Kerravala says.
For many industries, the prospect of overhauling their wireless network infrastructure to support WiFi 6 might not seem realistic in 2020, especially given the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Even in relatively unaffected industries, IT leaders may have recently updated their wireless equipment, and the capital investment needed to upgrade isn’t available now.
The good news is that WiFi 6 routers and switches, for instance, have been designed to be backward compatible with existing devices, but the not-so-good news is that to realize all the power, performance, and speed benefits , client devices connecting to those routers, switches, and access points must also support WiFi 6. Still, WiFi 6-compatible infrastructure is available from vendors now and at more reasonable price points than their initial debut in 2019.
“Products have been out for more than a year, but we are still in the early phases of deployment. Still, comparatively few client devices that support WiFi 6 are available, and the real benefits don’t occur until all or least most clients support it,” Hintersteiner says. “Early adopters are those venues that know they have to support high-density applications and are in the process of building in anticipation of the wider availability of client devices.”
That’s why industry watchers expect WiFi 6 to become a priority for businesses across any industry updating their wireless or wired infrastructure, but for some specific use cases, an update will offer greater benefits. Examples would include entertainment and media venues, along with any businesses that support large crowds within stadiums for sporting, music, or other artistic events. Attendees of such events want to be able to take video, Google stats, text, and call without performance issues of any kind, never mind a full-service interruption while thousands of their peers do the same.
Historically, the constant demand for connectivity has been the same for conference centers, housing thousands of people expecting to get some work done while also attending the keynote address. No longer will businesses invest in venues that cannot support the quality of experience customers expect when traveling for work. Often, these venues are in the hospitality industry—specifically hotels, which also often house event facilities. Those staying at the hotel where the event is hosted want to enjoy the same level of consistent, stable connectivity in meetings that they do in their private hotel room.
Of course, it is impossible to foresee what degree of normalcy industries like hospitality, sports, and entertainment will return to when the pandemic subsides, and hence, what the need to support connectivity within high crowd-density settings will be.
Industries such as education are also being called to provide more technologically supportive learning environments, using WiFi across campuses to support student laptops and online course curricula. Again, in this scenario speed might not be the most important factor as multiple students need to have a consistent experience on their school-provided Chromebook during class.
As healthcare organizations adopt more mobile devices to perform and support patient visits, WiFi 6 will be critical to support an institution with multiple caregivers addressing patient needs. And retailers will want to be able to connect to all customers via WiFi to understand their shopping habits and push promotions to their smartphone while they browse merchandise in-store versus on Amazon.
“WiFi 6 is much better equipped to handle video and the other network-based apps (cloud, mobile apps) that have seen a rise because of COVID-19. WiFi6 brings a ‘wired-like’ experience to Wi-Fi,” Kerravala says.
IT leaders recognize they must balance current technology demands against preparing for future needs.
Industry watchers expect most businesses will want to explore WiFi 6 at some point, but determining if the timing for an upgrade differs among use cases. For some, the next scheduled infrastructure update could be soon enough, but for those businesses that must support high-density use cases or those that deploy IoT sensors to collect critical data from disparate resources might need to consider it sooner. Here are some ways you can evaluate and prepare:
Take inventory. It’s always a smart move to understand the current devices in-house and how they could be adjusted or updated to support an emerging technology. Industry watchers advise if businesses have just upgraded their wired and wireless infrastructure in the past year, then maybe they can wait. But for others, it would not be prudent to put off WiFi 6 adoption for too long. While some businesses are at a standstill due to COVID-19, making an effort to understand and test out WiFi 6 could be beneficial.
Know the customer. While it’s obviously imperative to any business, understanding customers and their wireless behaviors can also help IT leaders determine if their business needs the added performance, stability, and security of WiFi 6 to deliver the quality of experience customers and end users expect. In today’s digital economy, businesses want to keep more customers on their WiFi networks longer because of the invaluable behavior and app usage data that can be collected and analyzed for future use, such as in the development of new products and services.
Plan for the future. Business technology decision makers must also consider how WiFi 6 will impact business strategy. If there is a need to support high-density apps and services, then WiFi 6 could be the competitive differentiator the business needs now. With more WiFi 6-supported technology becoming available this year, industry watchers expect adoption will be a priority.
“I would get ahead of the curve and deploy WiFi 6 today because the devices are coming. And IoT is coming, and coming in a big way,” Kerravala says. “From an early adopter standpoint, it will be businesses that really rely heavily on WiFi for different types of experiences: hospitality, stadiums, event spaces, education, retail, and any business where poor WiFi can actually mean that customers can’t do what they want to do.”