Don’t be blinded by 5G: Why you can’t neglect Wi-Fi 6

As important as 5G is for smartphones and other devices, don't overlook an equally important next-generation wireless technology -- Wi-Fi 6.

abstract laptop showing wireless internet connection

Everyone seems fixated on the emerging 5G technology as the next great way to connect. And it’s true – 5G is an important technology not only for smartphones, but many other connected devices, particularly those that are mobile and/or remote (e.g., cars, meters, smart sensors, etc.). But as important as 5G is, often overlooked is an equally important next generation wireless technology for our increasingly connected world – Wi-Fi 6.

Most people are familiar with Wi-Fi as a way to connect their laptops to the internet while at home, in public places or in the office. But most current Wi-Fi access points (APs) are at least two generations behind on the technology. I estimate that at least 75 percent of existing installations of Wi-Fi are on 802.11n, a wireless standard approved in 2009.

In technology terms this is “ancient,” although 802.11n APs can still be purchased. Some APs have been replaced by the more recent 802.11ac and now renamed Wi-Fi 5, although its initial specifications were approved in 2013 and updated in 2016, so it’s not all that recent. The latest generation, Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ax) is available but still has a very small share of the installed base in both homes and businesses primarily for two reasons; the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” phenomenon where APs only get replaced when they fail, and the current relatively high premium price for Wi-Fi 6 APs ($150-$300+ each).

So why should we care about the next generation when most people think their existing Wi-Fi is adequate? GSMA estimates that the average home will have more than 24 connected devices by 2020, and that the number of connected devices will double every two years. Even if you think these numbers are too optimistic, it’s still clear that Wi-Fi networks are going to exhibit massive growth in connections and data consumption. The problem is, older Wi-Fi tech just wasn’t designed for this type of network loading.

It’s not just an issue of running the latest APs with “things” and PCs. Most smartphones also connect to Wi-Fi when it’s available and carry high bandwidth traffic over that network (e.g., music streaming, video streaming, gaming, and even calling over Wi-Fi is common). Since Wi-Fi is so readily available, it’s a good way to keep the traffic down on the cellular network, but this shifts the data load to Wi-Fi.

This increased burden can cause issues on any Wi-Fi network, but especially in public places like a stadium or airport where there can be thousands of devices trying to connect at the same time. But vendors are reacting to this need as the older technology just doesn’t cut it in comparison. As just one example, Qualcomm is introducing a Wi-Fi 6 chip for APs that can handle up to 1,500 simultaneous connections, supporting a scale which is critical to future deployments in large venues like arenas. [Disclosure: As an industry analyst I provide advisory services to many companies, including Qualcomm.

Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6

If you’re still maintaining an old 802.11n network (and most homes and businesses are), then you need to rethink the logic behind that. “Because it works” is not a good enough excuse when the capacity and security of the network are so much better with Wi-Fi 6. And if you’re thinking about that new smartphone purchase, you really need to be looking at not only if it supports 5G, but also if it supports Wi-Fi 6 (and which flavors of Wi-Fi 6). Businesses, in particular, should deploy Wi-Fi 6 devices as a way to stay ahead of the curve in numbers of connected devices, but also to maximize end user experience through increased bandwidth, lower latency, better power management and increased security.

Wi-Fi 6: Are we there yet?

We’re about to see an explosion of Wi-Fi 6 technology in both devices and APs. As an example of the coming growth, Qualcomm, a supplier of Wi-Fi 6 chips to both AP and phone makers (along with competing suppliers like Intel, Broadcom, MediaTek, etc.), now offers a series of chips for next generation mobile Wi-Fi. It already supplies its FastConnect 6200 Wi-Fi 6 subsystem to nearly all high-end smartphone makers that employ the Snapdragon 855 and 855+ chips in their devices (e.g., Samsung, LG, Lenovo, Nokia, Xiaomi, Oppo). This enables smartphones to support Wi-Fi 6 with eight streams sounding for up to 8x8 MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output) even with only two antennas, enhanced security with WPA 3, and Target Wake Time (a method to improve battery life by up to 67 percent when doing high bandwidth data streaming). All of this capability is a major improvement over the older Wi-Fi 5 standards.

While current generation mobile Wi-Fi 6 is good, the next generation will be more capable. For example, expect products that add simultaneous dual band access (2.4GHz and 5 GHz), multi-user (MU-MIMO) for upload and download, and up to 1.8Gbps transfer speed with OFDMA support (a key technology in modern cellular networks), much lower latency and improved power efficiency, all of which should be ready for the next generation of Snapdragons powering the next crop of high end smartphones.

Of course these benefits come into play only if connected to a compatible Wi-Fi 6 AP. But current AP offerings tend to be expensive and high end. I expect a much broader range of products to be available within the next 6-12 months. As an example of the need for multiple price points to diversify the AP market (similar to what happened in the PC and phone space), Qualcomm, recently announced its Pro Series 400, 600, 800 and 1200 families offering varying degrees of performance and cost, and allowing AP vendors to hit a variety of feature and performance price targets that should accelerate adoption. No doubt other Wi-Fi 6 chip vendors will also look at diversifying their product range for increased capability and greater market penetration.

Do I really need to upgrade?

If this sounds like a commercial, it’s not meant to be. Rather, it’s an indication of why it’s important for both end users and businesses to consider upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 environment. It’s expected that up to 59 percent of mobile data will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022 when 80 percent of mobile data traffic will be video (according to Cisco). There is no way that current antiquated Wi-Fi installations can handle this load. Of course, to make it attractive for consumers to upgrade, the premium price of Wi-Fi 6 APs will have to come down dramatically from the current $150 - $300+ (for comparison, a Wi-Fi 11n AP can be had for less than $50).

Businesses are much less cost-sensitive so current pricing is less of an issue for them. The cost of an upgrade for enterprises is much more than just the cost of an access point, so a real payback needs to be shown, but with the additional value of Wi-Fi 6 in speed, latency, security and capacity, that should not be very hard to do.

Bottom line: While you should rightly focus on 5G for your next mobile device purchase, don’t neglect the major improvements in security, speed and latency that Wi-Fi 6 can bring when using your device in enterprises and public places. And with the upcoming plethora of connected devices all wanting high bandwidth access, the only way to have quality of service and avoid bandwidth bottlenecks is to upgrade the AP currently installed. Yes, Wi-Fi 6 will mean buying new equipment. But for most users, and especially for enterprises, the benefits will outweigh the costs.