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How to determine if Wi-Fi 6 is right for you

Jan 21, 20216 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

Wi-Fi 6 is on the horizon. Follow these steps to determine if your business should upgrade to the new wireless standard and how to prepare.

Future Wi-Fi
Credit: Thinkstock

There’s a lot of hype around the next Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, more commonly known as Wi-Fi 6. Often new technologies are built up by vendors as the “next big thing” and then flop because they don’t live up to expectations. In the case of Wi-Fi 6, however, the fervor is warranted because it’s the first Wi-Fi standard designed with the premise that Wi-Fi is the primary connection for devices rather than a network of convenience.

Wi-Fi 6 is a different kind of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi 6 is loaded with features, such as Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), 1024-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) encoding, and target wake time (TWT), that make Wi-Fi faster and less congested. Many of these enhancements came from the world of LTE and 4G, which addressed these challenges long ago. These new features will lead to a better mobile experience and longer client battery life, and they will open the door to a wide range of applications that could not have been done on Wi-Fi in the past. For example, an architect could now use virtual reality (VR) over Wi-Fi to showcase a house.

Wi-Fi 6 is due to be ratified in 2019, but some commercial products are available today. All businesses should eventually deploy Wi-Fi 6, but many will not need to do so immediately.

4 types of companies that should deploy Wi-Fi 6

Customers currently running Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and older: ZK Research estimates that up to 49% of all businesses still run Wi-Fi 4 somewhere in their organization. (Note: I’m an employee of ZK Research.) This technology is almost a decade old and can cause major problems with application performance or reliability. These customers should skip Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and deploy Wi-Fi 6. Deploying Wi-Fi 5 will likely result in the need to perform another upgrade in two to three years, while Wi-Fi 6 can be left in place for at least five years.

Trailblazing companies that are early adopters of new technology: Many businesses strive to stay ahead of the curve with respect to technology. Wi-Fi 6 will provide the best possible experience for their customers and internal employees, and the technology should be a top consideration for these types of businesses. These companies are often found in highly competitive industries, such as luxury retail and entertainment venues, and poorly performing wireless can quickly drive their customers to another brand.

Companies that use high-bandwidth and immersive applications: Many businesses have integrated high-bandwidth applications into their business processes. Examples of this are VR as a customer service or collaboration tool, and HD video in enterprise work spaces and meeting rooms. The increased bandwidth of Wi-Fi 6 will ensure a better user experience.

Organizations that are building high-density wireless networks. This includes public spaces, universities, stadiums, and theaters. These types of companies are often trying to capture usage data about their audience, so they need people to sign into the Wi-Fi. With older versions of Wi-Fi, the network gets saturated quickly, causing individuals to switch to LTE. Use cases like this have been very difficult to implement with older versions, but it’s possible with Wi-Fi 6. 

ishanghai wifi kiosk i-Shanghai

i-Shanghai digital kiosks in China offer free Wi-Fi and are used by people to look up local information on large digital displays.

For example, service provider i-Shanghai in China has now integrated Huawei’s Wi-Fi 6 access points into its digital kiosks. The kiosks offer free Wi-Fi and are used by people to look up local information on large digital displays. The APs provide an aggregate of 6 Gbps of bandwidth and can deliver free Wi-Fi to more than 1,000 connected devices, which is a fourfold improvement over Wi-Fi 5. The system is built with open data interfaces for the public security system in order to perform security analysis. Also, the data from Wi-Fi can be used to analyze crowd flows. 

Obviously, any business can adopt Wi-Fi 6, but those that have just deployed 802.11ac Wave 2 might not see a large enough jump in benefits unless they fit the profile of the use cases listed above. Once the decision to adopt Wi-Fi 6 has been made, it’s time to start thinking about how to prepare for it. Here’s what I recommend.

3 steps to get ready for Wi-Fi 6 

Be sure the wired network has been refreshed. Wi-Fi 6 will have a cascading effect down to the campus core. The increased bandwidth can saturate the wired edge, and an upgrade there can have a similar impact on the core. Key features required for the wired network are 30-watt power over Ethernet (PoE+), multi-gig interfaces (1/2.5/5 GigE) and 40 GigE uplinks to the core. Also, unified management becomes a must-have. This enables security and access policies to be managed from a single dashboard and propagated across the wired and wireless network simultaneously. It’s important to remember that the wireless experience is only as good as the wired backbone.

Implement AI-based operations management. Wi-Fi 6 enables businesses to become hyper-connected where virtually everything is tied into a common network. This will enable businesses to create new processes that will drive productivity to new heights. The downside of being hyper-connected is that complexity goes through the roof. A recent ZK Research survey found that 61% of companies have little or no confidence that they are aware of all the devices on the network. This problem will only get worse as more things are connected. People can’t work fast enough to see everything and find insights in the data, but machines can. An artificial intelligence-based operations tool is mandatory for success with Wi-Fi 6.

Connect the company network to IoT-specific networks. Many verticals have closed networks for specific business functions. Examples of this are the electronic shelf-labeling network in retail, student management in K-12, and the radiology network in hospitals. Digital transformation and the Internet of Things (IoT) will eventually converge these networks. Network professionals should prepare for this by understanding the size of these networks, protocols used (BLE and Zigbee, for example), and security implications.

One final note: I’ve talked to many IT professionals who are concerned they might be jumping the gun on Wi-Fi 6 because there are no handsets or endpoints that have the new chips in them. I say, though, that it’s better to put the right network in place now in advance of Wi-Fi 6 endpoints instead of having to react quickly when they do come out. In the meantime, Wi-Fi 5 and earlier endpoints will work just fine.

The Wi-Fi 6 era is almost upon us, and IT leaders need to understand whether the technology is right for them. If it is, then they must start the educational process now and begin preparing for the upgrade. If preparation is done correctly, the deployment should go smoothly.


Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, and provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers.

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