Ask the Expert: My Business is Growing. Will Wi-Fi 6 Really Give Me Enough Coverage Long Term for All My Connected Devices and IoT Applications? And What Happens If I Want to Expand My Device Usage or Network Range Down the Line?

Enterprise mobility expert Bruce Willins answers your burning questions about this new Wi-Fi technology, including when, where, and how it works best in different business environments and when the time will be right to start the infrastructure upgrade.

A retail associate helps a customer find an item
by Your Edge Blog Team
July 09, 2021

Rumor has it there will be 35 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices installed around the world – and 46 billion connected devices online – by the end of 2021. On top of that, 70% of the global population is expected to have mobile-network-based connectivity by 2023. Amazing! But, also, a little frightening. The most recent generation of wireless networks weren’t built to handle that much traffic, despite their anticipatory design. Forget about the tremendous growth in consumer smartphone or smart device utilization for a second. Consider just the rapid uptick in connections being made for the sake of business.

Who knew a global public health crisis would precipitate the need to equip “unserved mobile workers” (i.e., workers that need a mobile device, but do not have one) across every global sector, including retail and hospitality? Or that such dramatic warehouse and supply chain technology maturation would occur within months – and years ahead of schedule. Even the most refined predictive models would have struggled to forecast the massive demand for technology over the past 18 months, much less bandwidth.

That’s why I liken the current acceleration of wireless infrastructure expansion to what we’re seeing with roads in high growth U.S. states like Texas. Highways widened from two lanes to four (or more) in the last decade were rendered insufficient almost immediately after project completion. Due to several factors, such as population and economic growth, the number of vehicles hitting the road each day – and the number of times they hit the road – has skyrocketed far beyond original forecasts.

To be fair, such infrastructure projects take years to plan and ultimately execute. And there have been a host of unpredictable dynamics that have driven traffic congestion to the brink of capacity once again for roads and wireless networks. Nonetheless, we must figure out a way to reduce congestion to make it easier for people and data to get where they need to go.

From a wireless perspective, we’re seeing a movement toward greater Wi-Fi utilization to alleviate pressure on cellular networks. In fact, more than half of U.S. internet traffic transits a Wi-Fi network today, and it’s expected that 71% of 5G mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by next year.

What does that mean for organizations that rely on Wi-Fi to keep employees and customers connected to information and experiences on their campuses? Will Wi-Fi 6 really provide a better, faster connection and reduce latency to better support all the data that will be captured, sent and received just within the four walls of retail stores, warehouse, hospitals, hotels and other businesses?  Enterprise mobility expert Bruce Willins is back to give us the scoop:

Your Edge Blog Team: Bruce, in one of our recent discussions, you spoke about several benefits that businesses can expect to gain from emerging wireless technologies. Can you quickly recap what you see as the major advantages of Wi-Fi 6 over Wi-Fi 5?

Bruce: In summary, I’d have to say there are nine potential benefits of Wi-Fi 6. They include higher data rates, better resource allocation, improved uplink performance, lower latency, better 2.4GHz support, improved cell density, improved power management, improved range for low rate devices, and improved/updated security.

Your Edge Blog Team: And how will Wi-Fi 6E compare to Wi-Fi 6?   

Bruce: With Wi-Fi 6E, we go from a dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) solution to a triband solution, adding 6GHz. Wi-Fi 6E adds 1200MHz, which is more than the aggregate of ~560MHz available in the legacy bands. However, one does have to consider that 6GHz coverage may be less than the lower frequency bands, with all other parameters being equivalent, and the amount of bandwidth available may vary outside the United States.

Your Edge Blog Team: There’s a lot of talk about how game changing Wi-Fi 6 will be for the home network. But can you elaborate more about its potential for company networks? What can organizations expect to gain as they upgrade from previous generations of Wi-Fi technology?

Bruce: Enterprise customers are quite excited about Wi-Fi 6, as they have multiple use cases where capacity is front and center. They are seeing significant growth in the number of Wi-Fi nodes on their networks. This includes corporate devices, customer devices, and new IoT device types, which include everything from sensors to weight scales. They are also seeing an increase in high bandwidth applications ranging from high-definition video streaming to augmented/virtual reality.  Finally, they are increasingly running time-sensitive applications such as voice and/or video conferencing over Wi-Fi. All these applications stand to benefit significantly from features in Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is there any reason they should temper expectations about certain marketed benefits for either Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E?

Bruce: I used the word “potential” earlier to describe some of the benefits. Exploitation of some of the features may take time to find their way into both client and infrastructure devices. Of course, for Wi-Fi 6E, band availability may differ outside the U.S. As mentioned before, we must consider physics at 6GHz as compared to lower frequency bands. Thus, customers that implemented site surveys for a 2.4GHz network may not reap the benefits of 6GHz at fringe areas. And those that are not stressing their current capacity may not see a significant difference but may be avoiding future bottlenecks.   

Your Edge Blog Team: Are there specific applications that warrant a faster transition to Wi-Fi 6 – or even Wi-Fi 6E?

Bruce: A converged voice/data Wi-Fi network has been a goal and a challenge for many enterprise customers. Wi-Fi uses a contention-based channel access protocol. Thus, as the network becomes saturated, latency grows and degrades voice/telephony sessions. Additional capacity, MU MIMO, and OFDMA resource units, all have the ability to offer lower, more predictable, latency.

Whether for training or collaboration, video conferencing, or augmented reality, video continues to need more network bandwidth. Cell density, additional spectrum, higher degrees of channel aggregation, and higher order modulation all provide customers increased capacity per node, per cell, and per square meter.

Your Edge Blog Team: We’ve briefly discussed this before, but can you talk more about the benefit of Wi-Fi 6E compared to Wi-Fi 6?

Bruce: Well, if you add all 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz bandwidth and multiply by two, you still don’t get all the bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi 6E. The 6GHz band offers a huge capacity boost to those who are going to be running data-intensive applications around the clock or may have 500 devices simultaneously trying to connect to the network. Remember, Wi-Fi 6 – and especially Wi-Fi 6E – are all about the reduction of network congestion. So, as traffic climbs for whatever reason, the value of that extra 6GHz band also climbs.

Your Edge Blog Team: With that in mind, is there a scenario in which it makes sense for someone to jump straight to Wi-Fi 6E and bypass Wi-Fi 6? Has a new use case emerged in recent months where the extra bandwidth is essential to success?

Bruce: I’m always taken back to the early PC days when processor upgrades seemed like they were coming out daily and you could easily fall into a perpetual waiting scenario. Wi-Fi 6 is becoming widely available in 2021 and 2022. Wi-Fi 6E will likely lag by 12-18 months. If you have a strong use case for the added capacity of Wi-Fi 6E and have the luxury of time, then certainly waiting is a viable strategy.  Customers buying long-service-life client devices should give significant consideration to WiFi6/6E.

Your Edge Blog Team: What would you say to a customer that says they’re waiting for more Wi-Fi 6E devices, access points or other solution components to become available before upgrading from Wi-Fi 5? Is that a smart move?

Bruce: Again, it’s all about context. Why do they feel it’s best to wait? What are they trying to accomplish? And why do they think Wi-Fi 6 will be insufficient? Can they even afford to continue with their current system setup? Or is it maxed out?

Your Edge Blog Team: It sounds like it makes sense for companies to start migrating to Wi-Fi 6 now if they can, once those use cases are clearly defined. But are there risks to being an early adopter?

Bruce: The beauty of Wi-Fi technology is that you can have a mixed infrastructure online in your facility, so you can upgrade your devices incrementally. You can also start buying Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E mobile computers or tablets now if you’re in the market for new devices to support an expanding workforce or introduce new workflow applications where certain feature sets are needed – even if you don’t have a Wi-Fi 6 access point. Wi-Fi 6 devices will still connect to Wi-Fi 5 networks. In fact, a lot of infrastructure will feature tri-band access points with concurrent operation. This flexibility enables retailers, for example, to update Wi-Fi infrastructure more aggressively in their stores to support both employee and guest use even if they wait a bit longer before making a change in their warehouses.

Your Edge Blog Team: Thinking holistically, are there other considerations that customers should consider as we transition to Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E?  What are those things organizations should think about when designing the network architecture and selecting devices? And what should they be on the lookout for when monitoring network and device performance in this type of wireless environment?

Bruce: Yes. As we start adding capacity and increase our Wi-Fi loading, we must ensure backhaul networks and back-end servers are proportionately scaled.  Also, we must consider operationally if access point placement is commensurate with 6GHz propagation models.  Optimal performance may require customers to consider a new site survey and access point placement given their specific locale needs and new features available in Wi-Fi 6 (i.e., “band coloring”).

Customers should also carefully understand performance claims and significance. “Throughput” and “data rate” claims are often misleading. So, customers should confirm the burst data rate, the device throughput, system capacity, and capacity/square-meter.

The burst data rate is the maximum data rate at which a device can burst on the channel. There are hundreds of possible burst data rates depending on modulation, modulation settings, channel aggregation, and degrees of spatial diversity. Plus, the ability to reliably transport data at a specified burst rate will depend on having adequate signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). To give an example: the max burst rate for a Wi-Fi 6 2x2 MIMO handheld mobile device in a high SNR Environment would be approximately 2.4 GBPS (1024 QAM, 160MHz, 800ns GI, 5/6 rate). In contrast, in a low SNR environment, this may drop to 14.7 Mbps (BPSK, 20MHz, 3200ns GI, ½ rate). 

“Device throughput” is generally measured as the maximum data that can be consumed or transmitted by a device. This metric incorporates processor performance. Customers should be pragmatic when considering this metric. Does a device with 200Mbps of device throughput provide twice the value of a device that supports 100Mbps?  Certainly, if the time to download a full motion picture is a key metric, then this might be heavily weighted. On the other hand, if you’re streaming a 4K ultra-HD video that has a throughput of approximately 25Mbps, it might make no difference.

For many, “system capacity” may be more significant.  Even if a device may not have a very high sustained throughput, it may have a high burst rate on the channel – meaning it gets on and off the channel very fast. This enables other devices to communicate, providing higher system capacity.

Finally, there is the concept of capacity/square (sq) meter. One access point covering a large area will have less peak capacity/sq meter than four access points covering the same area. 

Your Edge Blog Team: Are there certain types of mobile computers, tablets or other devices that are better suited for Wi-Fi powered applications than others? Or certain things to look for when reviewing a spec sheet to ensure a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E device is going to be able to fully support a specific application or work well in a certain type of Wi-Fi-enabled environment?

Bruce: There are platforms that may not be Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) certifiable. For example, some devices may be designated as “ax-ready.”  We strongly suggest customers ask suppliers if they are WFA certifiable. Also, customers should be careful to scrutinize Wi-Fi 6 performance claims.  For example, many vendors boast Wi-Fi 6 data rates up to 9.6Gbps. Do realize this is only possible with an 8x8 MIMO array and with appropriate signal-to-noise ratios.

Your Edge Blog Team: Before we let you go, we wanted to get your opinion on one more thing. We’re being told there will be more than three times more networked devices on Earth than humans by 2023. Already, there are 35 billion devices connecting to the internet every minute! Even if some leverage wired Ethernet cables to connect, it’s fair to assume many are connecting to a wireless network in some capacity – if not always. With Wi-Fi activity this year approximately 80% higher than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, and more smartphones, tablets, laptops and IoT devices coming online every day, we’re curious if the current advancements being made with Wi-Fi 6 – or even other wireless technologies – will indeed be sufficient to support this much traffic in the near future.

Bruce: History is replete with quotes about future technology adequacy. For example, Bill Gates once said, “640K [computer memory] ought to be enough for anybody.” Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are the next step in the evolution of WLAN technology. In fact, Wi-Fi 7 is already being developed which will provide yet another step-up in burst data rates via higher order modulation and increased spatial diversity. Wi-Fi 7 is not expected to be finalized until 2024. But, to answer your question, digital transformation is almost always a journey, not a destination.

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