Whenever a new generation of Wi-Fi technology arises, the network infrastructure (APs) usually becomes available before the client devices. As a result, challenges emerge in the enterprise regarding when to spend money on network upgrades based on the existing client population and the assimilation of newer clients.
So, when discussing Wi-Fi 6E, I am also asked many of the same questions. Should I upgrade my infrastructure now or what for more clients? When will we see the newer Wi-Fi clients? Are there any benefits to my legacy clients if I deploy this new generation of Wi-Fi technology? While all these questions are indeed always valid, things are different this time with the advent of Wi-Fi 6E and the availability of the 6 GHz frequency band.
Figure 1 – Connected at 6 GHz
I have seen several analysts and heard some podcasters discuss Wi-Fi 6E with indifference. “Ho-hum, just another Wi-Fi upgrade, and who cares?” seems to be a common thread of negativity among some circles. First, I must say that I am sympathetic to “upgrade fatigue.” Sure, I get it…. 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), and now Wi-Fi 6E. When does it ever end? Well, truth to told, it doesn’t end. That is just the nature of the beast when it comes to all forms of technology. Innovation makes our lives better and drives worldwide economic engines. Wi-Fi has been around now for 22 years, and with each new generation, we have witnessed tremendous gains in wireless performance, connectivity, and user experience. And the Wi-Fi innovation timeline has always been fast when compared to other wireless technologies.
But with all due respect to some of the Wi-Fi 6E naysayers, “you just don’t get it.” Wi-Fi 6E is not just another ho-hum technology upgrade, it’s a spectrum upgrade. As I have written in numerous blogs, Wi-Fi 6E brings us up to 1,200 MHz of new spectrum in the 6 GHz band. This, my friends, is an enormous spectrum bonanza. And guess what? This 6 GHz spectrum upgrade will pave the path for many new Wi-Fi innovations for the next 22 years. If your company is due for a Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade, you should be thinking seriously about Wi-Fi 6E.
Different companies use different strategies when performing WLAN upgrades. Depending on budget and timing, a rip and replace upgrade of all the existing APs may be scheduled. Some companies may use a “salt-and-pepper” design approach, where APs in only certain areas of a building are upgraded first. For example, AP upgrades might first occur in regions with a higher density of users and clients. Another approach would be to upgrade an entire building with new APs, to test the new 802.11 technology in a live enterprise environment. If the technology is solid, then upgrades to all other facilities and locations could proceed. Once again, Wi-Fi 6E is not just a technology upgrade, but instead is porting over the existing 802.11ax to the 6 GHz frequency band. I anticipate a lot of different 6 GHz Wi-Fi design strategies for coverage, segmentation, and use of specific applications.
Which brings us to the main discussion of this blog, the Wi-Fi clients. Wi-Fi vendors, partners, and customers are all guilty of too much focus on the APs. Whenever discussing Wi-Fi, the real focus should be on the clients. APs provide the magical wireless portal, but the clients provide the wireless connectivity and mobility. So, when upgrading to the latest and greatest Wi-Fi APs, the question of backward compatibility always comes up when discussing clients. In all honesty, backward compatibility for Wi-Fi has often been a curse for a number of reasons. First, in order for different generations of Wi-Fi technology to co-exist in the same frequency and physical space, 802.11 protection mechanisms are required. These protection mechanisms use a request-to-send/clear-to-send (RTS/CTS) frame exchange process, which adds overhead to the medium and negatively impacts overall performance. You might be driving a Ferrari, but the older cars on the highway are slowing you down.
Wi-Fi 6E is entirely different when it comes to clients. One key difference of using the 6 GHz frequency band is there is no need for backward compatibility. The 6 GHz frequency band will be a “pure” 802.11ax technology band for Wi-Fi communication. Because 802.11a/b/g/n/ac radios operate only on the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band and not the 6 GHz band, protection mechanisms aren’t needed. Therefore, the overhead caused by legacy clients will not be an issue in 6 GHz.
On the flip side, I am getting asked a very common question, “Can my legacy Wi-Fi clients use a firmware upgrade so they can connect to 6 GHz?” The short and blunt answer is no. They can only operate on the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequency band. If you want 6 GHz connectivity, you will need new Wi-Fi 6E client devices. However, the legacy clients may indirectly benefit from having their traffic carried in a 6 GHz mesh backhaul link. Most Wi-Fi 6 enterprise APs are expected to be tri-frequency. Therefore, one of the immediate use cases expected for 6 GHz Wi-Fi will be indoor mesh backhaul, as depicted in Figure 2.
Figure 2 – 6 GHz mesh backhaul
Have you ever had a house guest that has overstayed their welcome? Well, because of backward compatibility, Wi-Fi clients have a tendency of overstaying their welcome in the enterprise. Depending on the vertical, Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade cycles in the enterprise typically occur every four or five years. Enterprise customers usually upgrade their APs and WLAN infrastructure, but often fail to upgrade the client population. Legacy clients often have a 10-year sales cycle and hang around way too long. Quite frankly, what often drives client upgrades in the enterprise is bring your own device (BYOD). Employees expect to be able to connect to a corporate WLAN with multiple personal mobile devices. Employees get the latest and greatest Wi-Fi devices, and they bring the newer Wi-Fi technology to work. And guess what, they are now starting to bring 6 GHz capable clients to work!
Samsung has always been the leader and first to market with new Wi-Fi capabilities on the mobile device side. Earlier this year, I purchased a Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra smartphone that is fully Wi-Fi 6E compatible. Back in February of 2021, Broadcom announced the world’s first Wi-Fi 6E client radio, the BCM4389, which is used in my Samsung phone. With great success, I have been using this smartphone for a lot of early days testing of 6 GHz Wi-Fi. But what there’s more, last week, Google announced the release of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro smartphones. And guess what? Yep…. Wi-Fi 6E capable. Many more smartphones and tablets with 6 GHz Wi-Fi functionality are hitting the market fast. We expect at least another eight or nine to hit the market before February of 2022.
Figure 3 – Wi-Fi 6E smartphones – Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Google Pixel 6
What about laptops? Well, for almost a year, Wi-Fi 6E radios have been available as an option in high-end laptops from Dell, Lenovo, and many other major laptop vendors. They all use the Intel AX210 radio, as shown in Figure 4. By the way, the chances are that if you have bought a laptop in the last couple of years, you should be able to manually upgrade the radio with the Intel AX210. I replaced an 802.11ac radio in a Lenovo IdeaPad 3 in about ten minutes. I now have 6 GHz connectivity with my lost-cost laptop! One word of advice, Windows 11 fully supports Wi-Fi 6E and the Intel AX210 with the latest and greatest drivers. Getting it to work with Windows 10 is a little tricky and may require a registry hack.
Figure 4 – Intel AX210
Ok, so I know the next thing everyone is going to ask is, what about Apple? Sadly, there is no support yet for Wi-Fi 6E in any Apple products. Hopefully, we will see that in 2022. I do not have Tim Cook’s phone number, but I promise to post the intel in a follow-up blog if he calls me to leak their product strategy.
Bottom line, many Android-based and Windows-based 6 GHz clients are available now and will be finding their way into the enterprise soon. And don’t forget Christmas is just around the corner. Maybe Santa Claus will leave you a Wi-Fi 6E present under the tree this year!
Portions of this blog have been excerpted from the free eBook: