I recently had the pleasure of writing an online article for Network Computing magazine called “From Home Office to HQ: Consumerization of Wi-Fi 6E.” When writing as a third-party author for online publications, typically, you must make your point in under 800 words. However, anyone who has read my 1024-page book about Wi-Fi knows that I tend to be a little bit verbose. Therefore, I thought I would offer up the longhand version via this Extreme Networks blog:
Companies need to become consumer-centric. Enterprise companies need to provide technology solutions that customers desire. They want technology that works for them. Technology should revolve around the customers’ needs as opposed to their lives being defined by hi-tech. And it has been proven time and again that consumers drive technology innovation and adoption in the enterprise.
Consumerization of IT is a phrase used to describe a shift in information technology (IT) that begins in the consumer market and moves into business and government facilities.
It has become commonplace for employees to introduce consumer market devices into the workplace after already embracing this new technology at home.
The history of Wi-Fi adoption is the perfect example of how the consumer often drives technology into the enterprise.
In the early days of Wi-Fi (2000 – 2005), most businesses did not provide wireless network access to the corporate network due to the limited wireless security options available at that time. Wireless networking security had a lousy reputation and deservedly so because of the weak legacy 802.11 security mechanisms initially available. WEP encryption was cracked, and effectively there were no secure authentication methods. As a result, along with a general mistrust of the unknown, it was common for companies to avoid implementing Wi-Fi networks.
But that did not matter to consumers. They were already buying consumer-grade 802.11b wireless routers and using them in their homes. They realized they no longer needed a computer that would anchor them to a desk in one room. Instead, consumers bought laptops with similar Wi-Fi capabilities, and they quickly fell in love with the mobility. They cut the Ethernet cord and had wireless access to the Internet from any room in their house at blazing speeds of 11 Mbps.
Employees went to work and asked their IT administrators, “When will we get Wi-Fi at work? I have it at home, and it is wonderful.” Of course, the response from the corporate networking team was, “There is no way we are deploying that Wi-Fi junk…. it is a huge security risk.” And it was at that moment that Wi-Fi’s Consumerization of IT began. Ironically those same Wi-Fi security problems actually pushed the enterprise toward adoption.
The big buzz-phrase in Wi-Fi security has always been the rogue AP. Employees enjoyed the flexibility of Wi-Fi at home, so they ignored their IT department and bought consumer-grade Wi-Fi routers to work. A rogue AP is defined as any potential open and unsecured wireless gateway into the wired infrastructure that the company wants to protect. A wireless rogue device can be used for data theft, data destruction, loss of services, and other attacks. The individuals most responsible for installing rogue APs were typically not hackers. Instead, these individuals were employees who did not realize the consequences of their actions. They just wanted Wi-Fi at work, so they brought it to work themselves.
Employees installing rogue APs forced businesses to deal with Wi-Fi. An overlay wireless instruction prevention system (WIPS) was often installed to detect and mitigate APs, but that was a measure of protection and not a complete solution. So, eventually, businesses and government agencies realized that they needed to deploy Wi-Fi so that they could manage the technology. They deployed enterprise-grade Wi-Fi access points (APs) and issued their employees laptops with wireless capabilities. The consumers drove Wi-Fi to the enterprise.
The advent of personal mobile Wi-Fi devices, such as smartphones and tablets, kicked off the next wave of Wi-Fi Consumerization of IT. The Apple iPhone was first introduced in June 2007, and the first iPad debuted in April 2010. HTC introduced the first Android smartphone in October 2008. These devices were originally meant for personal use, but in a very short time, employees wanted to also use their personal mobile devices on company Wi-Fi networks. Additionally, software developers began to create enterprise mobile business applications for smartphones and tablets. Businesses began to purchase and deploy tablets and smartphones to take advantage of these mobile enterprise applications. Tablets and smartphones provided the true mobility that employees and companies desired. Within a few years, the number of mobile devices connecting to corporate WLANs surpassed the number of laptop connections. This trend continues, with many, if not most, devices shipping with Wi-Fi as the primary network adapter. Many laptop computers now ship without an Ethernet adapter because the laptop Wi-Fi radio is used for network access.
Although mobile devices were initially intended for personal use, organizations found ways to deploy corporate mobile devices with custom software to improve productivity or functionality. Employees also increasingly wanted to use their personal mobile devices in the workplace. Employees wanted to be able to connect to a corporate wireless network with multiple personal mobile devices. As a result, companies implemented bring your own device (BYOD) policies to dictate which corporate resources can or cannot be accessed when employees connect to the company with their personal wireless devices. Bottom line, consumers forced wider adoption of Wi-Fi in the enterprise.
I am fond of saying that Wi-Fi technology is ingrained into our everyday lives. Wi-Fi has become an essential part of our daily worldwide communications culture. For over 25 years, Wi-Fi has provided true wireless mobility and secure connectivity in the enterprise. And consumers have consistently driven Wi-Fi technology to the enterprise. And now, consumers are buying Wi-Fi 6E devices, a trend that will drive the next wave of enterprise Wi-Fi adoption.
Wi-Fi has made a massive leap into the 6 GHz frequency band. In early 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use in the United States. In late 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced Wi-Fi 6E as an “extension” for certifying the 802.11ax features and Wi-Fi 6 capabilities in the 6 GHz band. Wi-Fi 6E is the industry name that identifies Wi-Fi devices that operate in 6 GHz.
To put this in perspective, the new 6 GHz spectrum available for Wi-Fi is more than double the usable channels of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels combined. So effectively, it triples the available unlicensed spectrum available for Wi-Fi. This, my friends, is a big deal.
The availability of the 6 GHz frequency space for Wi-Fi will have all kinds of real-world implications. The 2.4 GHz band is considered a best-effort band, and now 5 GHz can also be crowded. 6 GHz will enable crystal-clear communications because it has never been used before for Wi-Fi. Consumers may not care about the specifics of the spectrum update, but they will care about the quality of the connectivity that they are getting. And the pristine RF environment of 6 GHz will make that happen.
In the long term, I predict tremendous development and innovation for higher bandwidth applications. We are at the beginning of a renaissance of innovation for virtual reality and augmented reality applications that can be used via a Wi-Fi connection. AR/VR technologies have, for the most part, been used for gaming at home, but they are now finding their way to the enterprise. The 1200 MHz of 6 GHz spectrum now available for Wi-Fi will help consumers drive these technologies to the enterprise even further.
Although the adoption of 6 GHz Wi-Fi in the enterprise has just begun, expect consumers to demand it at work, as the availability of Wi-Fi 6E client devices is growing exponentially. Numerous Wi-Fi 6E-capable smartphones are already available, including the Samsung 21 and 22 Ultras, Google Pixel 6, etc. And over 80 laptops support Wi-Fi 6E from vendors such as Lenovo, Dell, and many others.
Consumers are already buying these Wi-Fi 6E devices and bringing them to work. And companies will want to deploy enterprise Wi-Fi 6E access points to accommodate them. Beginning with Wi-Fi 6E, the 6 GHz spectrum is the future for Wi-Fi for the next ten years and beyond. And consumers will drive that future.