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Jon Gold
Senior Writer

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

Analysis
Jan 28, 20195 mins
Internet of ThingsMobileSmall and Medium Business

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
Credit: 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.

Forrester principal analyst Andre Kindness – who argued that it’s probably too early for most businesses to consider a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade absent exceptional circumstances – said that this compatibility issue is an avoidable headache. If you invest in pre-standard hardware, should first talk to your reseller or vendor to make sure it’s not going to be a problem down the road. Multiple analysts urged potential buyers not to take “don’t worry about it” for an answer.

Kindness said, that not all pre-standard gear is going to be backward-compatible.“[Vendors] want to be the first to market, in general,” he said. “If you’re spending your R&D money, what are you going to spend it on, creating new products or enhancing the older ones?”

Benefits of 802.11ax

For all that, however, there’s still an outside case to be made for hopping on the Wi-Fi 6 bandwagon now instead of later, particularly for the aforementioned high-density deployment use cases.

Farpoint Group principal and Network World contributor Craig Mathias highlighted that the technical upsides of 802.11ax are eventually going to make the standard pretty well ubiquitous. It isn’t really about higher throughput, according to Mathias. Sure, the theoretical maximum speeds are higher than the current top standard 802.11ac wave 2, but that technology is already more than fast enough to handle the majority of uses to which it is generally put.

Instead, the idea is to provide better responsiveness and lower latency, particularly when a given access point has to handle a higher volume of devices – a crucial consideration in an age when any given person might need to connect half a dozen client devices to the Internet.

“What we try to do is, obviously, make sure that everybody’s got the capacity they need, and 802.11ax is the best vehicle so far for doing that,” he said. “Again, it’s not really available, not really standardized, no real clients, but it is clearly the future, no matter what.”

Deployment, management

Nor does the new technology present unusual concerns from a deployment perspective, and standard best practices for Wi-Fi implementation should work well for most companies: a site survey, an alpha deployment, followed by a beta test and a limited live deployment should identify any potential sticking points.

What’s more, the day-to-day management of 802.11ax could wind up being simpler than current-gen Wi-Fi, according to Mathias, though that’s more a function of what individual vendors do with the technology, rather than with the standard itself.

“The trend now is more robust management consoles, but particularly analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, so you’ll see those applied to a much greater degree,” he said.

Part of the reason for that is that the new low-level technologies in the new standard are incredibly complicated. These include bi-directional MU-MIMO and BSS coloring. They’re so complicated, in fact, that they’re going to be problematic for network operators to configure on the fly, so AI/ML management techniques are going to become increasingly necessary, according to Mathias.