When Will We Be Able to Purchase 802.11ax Access Points and Client Devices?

There are 3 milestones ahead: the IEEE, the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the Chipmakers.

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Today we focus on when new 802.11ax access points and client devices will become available. The Wi-Fi industry has made these questions uniquely difficult to answer, but this blog explains what we expect to happen. If you have the patience, save these predictions for rereading toward the end of 2019!

The three important milestones along the path to commercial equipment are the IEEE 802.11ax standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance 11ax certification, and integrated circuit chips. These are a sequence in time, but with a lot of overlap.

The First Milestone: IEEE
The IEEE writes standards: very detailed definitions of the packet formats, fields, and functions that make the protocols work. IEEE 802.11ax is written as an amendment to the current 802.11 standards and eventually will be folded into the mainstream 802.11 document. Even as an amendment, however, it is 600 pages long. Getting every detail of such a standard correct requires scrutiny from many experts, and the IEEE process involves reviewing drafts and submitting comments and corrections, which then update new drafts, and are reviewed again.

As of June 2018, comments on draft 2.0 have been reviewed, and draft 3.0 is underway. There will be more drafts, and when the working group finishes with the standard, it must undergo several further reviews by more standards experts. The current official date for final approval is December 2019, but it will almost certainly slip.

But the IEEE dates can be ignored because – for all effective purposes – the 11ax standard is frozen. All the major and minor features are defined and documented, and only a few minor features will be firmed up, deferred to ‘wave 2’ or dropped. For most of us the focus moved, months ago, from the IEEE to the Wi-Fi Alliance.

The Second Milestone: Wi-Fi Alliance
While the IEEE is a standards organization, the Wi-Fi Alliance is an industry association for promoting and marketing Wi-Fi (it owns the trademark). The Alliance’s most important function is developing test plans to ensure that – in the real world – Wi-Fi products interoperate the way they are supposed to.

Since the Wi-Fi Alliance comprises many of the same companies and individuals who participate in the IEEE, they were able to agree when the IEEE standard was solid enough that they could start work on the ‘Wi-Fi CERTIFIED AXTM’ certification program. The first plugfest was in early 2018 and the certification is expected to launch at the end of 2018. This will be a set of ‘wave 1’ features, and wave 2 will follow perhaps two years later.

But a standard and a certification are not sufficient to get products into the hands of customers. For that, we need the chipmakers and equipment-makers to work their magic. Not surprisingly, chips come first.

The Third Milestone: Chipmakers
Wi-Fi chips are now extremely complicated, and chipmakers send many scientists and developers to the IEEE to make sure new standards incorporate the latest, best technology, while developing new chip designs in parallel with the standards. By the time the Wi-Fi Alliance starts plugfests to test interoperability, the chipmakers are able to provide prototype hardware, which serves the dual purpose of proving the test plan and verifying that their designs are interoperable.

Competitive pressures drive the chipmakers to early market launches, but they are aware that if standards change or they discover implementation or interoperability bugs, they will have to re-spin designs, losing time and money. Throughout the Wi-Fi Alliance test plan development phase, the chipmakers gauge the best time to release volume chips. They start liaising with equipment-maker customers and supplying prototype chips for hardware design. Then the builders of access points and client devices can start to build next-generation products, test prototypes, and ramp up production.

With 802.11ax, the chipmakers are very close to hitting production designs: through 2017 and 2018 we have seen many announcements. 11ax chips are not yet shipping in volume, but, as of June 2018, they are readily available to equipment designers.

What About Access Points and Client Devices?
Access point vendors share the same dilemma as the chipmakers. If they commit to a design too early, they may need to update or recall products if the underlying standards change, or their chips have bugs, or they are not interoperable with other vendors’ clients. Engineering prudence suggests caution, but competitive pressures encourage speed.

So What Can We Expect?
Some access point vendors have already announced 11ax access points. And while press releases are not the same as shipping products, it is reasonable to expect that the first ‘11ax’ access points will ship in the third quarter of 2018.

But these products should come with a warning. They will be built on a partial implementation of the standard. In order to speed time to market, some chipmakers are releasing products that have only a subset of 11ax features. Access points built around these chips will work with certified 11ax clients, but without the performance of fully 11ax-compliant products. As mentioned in my previous blog, the key differentiating feature of 11ax is OFDMA. When deciding on vendors for ‘ax’ make sure that this feature is supported in both downlink and uplink, since this feature not only qualifies your APs for Wi-Fi Alliance certification, but also allows you to gain the full benefit of 11ax.

Other access point vendors will wait a few months for true 11ax chips, building new products that will probably come to market right at the end of 2018 or early in 2019. They will forgo time to market in exchange for a more full featured, future-proof product.

Meanwhile client devices will probably follow a similar timeline. The vendors we care most about – Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft – don’t preannounce consumer products, but they have made Wi-Fi performance a key product feature in the past, and we believe they are working hard to incorporate 11ax into phones, tablets, and PCs for the year-end sales season.

Reading the Tea Leaves
With vendors’ marketing departments striving to present their progress in the best light, it will be difficult to separate hype from reality. But here’s our predictions for the 11ax access point market.

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