Is jumping ahead to Wi-Fi 6 the right move?

Devices supporting Wi-Fi 6 a.k.a 802.11ax are expected out in 2019, but with the standard yet to be ratified, jumping in early might best be left to those with a compelling use case - and those do exist.

802.11ax Wi-Fi routers: Aerohive AP650, ASUS Rapture GT-AX11000 and D-Link AX6000
Aerohive / ASUS / D-Link / Stationary Traveller / GettyImages

In five years, all you’re going to find is Wi-Fi 6, or what most wireless experts are still calling 802.11ax. But five years is a long time. If you’re considering an early move toward the most cutting-edge Wi-Fi technology on the market, there are some hurdles that you’ll have to overcome.

The first is the preliminary state of the technology. Every access point (AP) on the market that’s being sold as 11ax or Wi-Fi 6 is pre-standard gear, given that that the Wi-Fi Alliance hasn’t yet finalized the standard. That poses potential interoperability issues down the line, according to analysts. And of course, there are no Wi-Fi 6-ready smartphones, laptops or other client devices available yet.

Why upgrade to 802.11ax?

It’s important to understand why you’re updating, as well, noted Gartner senior principal analyst Bill Menezes. The main reason to upgrade now is futureproofing, given the lack of Wi-Fi 6-capable client devices on the market.

“You’re really just putting it in there because you got a great price on it, or you’ve decided, ‘Well, I may not have the money in five years to upgrade,’” he said.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are particular use cases that could benefit from Wi-Fi 6-ready hardware more than others. The one that comes up more than any other – unsurprisingly, given the technology’s focus on efficiently connecting to large numbers of client devices via a single AP – is the hospitality and entertainment sector. Sports stadiums, convention halls and other large event venues are likely to benefit from Wi-Fi 6’s ability to handle lots of connections per endpoint.

Beyond that, however, there’s little consensus among experts about early adoption of 802.11ax among particular verticals. Some analysts posit a use case for IoT – particularly industrial IoT – using that high connections-per-AP ability to connect sensors together, but others note that Wi-Fi is unlikely to be the preferred connectivity medium for the actual sensors. That’s not to say that edge gateway devices won’t use Wi-Fi to connect back to clouds or data centers, but the gateways themselves are more likely to use slightly more specialized technology – usually some form of low-power WAN – to communicate with the sensors directly.

Compatibility could be an issue for early adopters

Another potential hurdle is the difference between pre-standard hardware and standard-ready hardware. Certain gear being sold as Wi-Fi 6 now might not be guaranteed to fully comply with the final 802.11ax standard, which the Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to finalize near the end of 2019.

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