Since the day we started shipping 11ax APs I constantly get the question, “Is it ok to purchase 11ax today since the IEEE standard and Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) certification are not finalized?”
I have been asked this question by partners, customers, and even analysts – mostly encouraged by competitors who have yet to field a valid Wi-Fi 6 solution. You see, these Wi-Fi vendors who say to wait because the standard is not ready, are just using marketing 101. When one vendor comes out with a solution, vendors lacking a solution say, “Wait till the standard is finalized.”
However, as soon as they start shipping a product the message shifts to ‘now that the standard is close enough it’s ok to buy ours.’ I have addressed the topic of when to purchase 11ax/Wi-Fi 6 products many, many times to individuals, but thought a blog might help provide a better understanding by describing the process to define the 11ax standard and Wi-Fi 6 certification and show where we are today.
As a member of both the IEEE 11ax and WFA Wi-Fi 6 task groups, I can provide you with a view and insights into the processes involved in developing standards and certifications.
At a high level, it starts at the IEEE with an idea, in this case, the next enhancement to the 802.11 standard. This process actually started around 2013 and is launched when an Interest Group is created. If there is enough interest by IEEE members, then a Product Authorization Request (PAR) is created, it is reviewed and if approved a work group is created. The work group is composed of IEEE members in the Wi-Fi industry; these include chip manufactures, AP vendors, client’s device manufactures, etc.
The work group is tasked with developing a draft standard, a process that takes an extensive number of weekly calls and multiple face-to-face meetings, over sometimes years, and after extensive discussion, the 802.11ax draft 1 is released, members then vote to approve it and also provide comments.
No one ever expects the first draft to pass as a super majority is required to move to the next level. In the case of 11ax, the first draft failed with only 58% voting to pass and thousands of comments were submitted. Comments could be as simple as grammar corrections or extremely complex technical concerns, in every case these comments must be addressed by the work group.
When draft 2 came along, we were back to weekly calls and in-person meetings where every comment was disused and voted upon for resolution. Once all comments are addressed we got to vote again. Once again draft 2 failed to reach the appropriate pass/fail criteria and hundreds and hundreds of more comments were submitted, all needing to be addressed in draft 3.
Again, the process of comment resolution and voting occurred, resulting in another failure. More comments, more discussions, and we finally reached draft 4. This draft passed, yet still with a significant number of comments requiring resolution. As you might guess, the draft approval process takes a significant amount of time, in fact, years to complete. Once the draft is approved and most importantly the technology discussions are completed, the draft standard still has a long way to go with multiple reviews and approval processing before we get to a standard’s final approval, it typically takes another year to reach that point. This is where we are today with the IEEE 802.11ax standard.
That was the IEEE process, so what about the Wi-Fi Alliance certification? As with the IEEE, it starts with a task group(s) to investigate the need for a new certification, in this case, Wi-Fi 6. Once again, the task group is composed of industry members, in fact, many are the same individuals as in the IEEE task groups. They start with a Market Requirements Document (MRD) to define the goal of the certification program; this document is based upon the current IEEE draft standard.
Normally, this effort starts when the IEEE task group has stabilized the technical requirements, typically around draft 2 or 3. This is also the timeframe when chipset manufacturers start releasing their 11ax chipsets, as they cannot wait until standards and certifications are completed. The WFA task groups operate similar to the IEEE groups with weekly calls and regular face-to-face meetings to determine what capabilities will be defined in the certification, all features identified in the IEEE standard may not make it into the final certification program. Additionally, some features will be identified as mandatory and some as optional.
All decisions are made based on voting by task group members who represent industry manufacturers, vendors, and organizations. Once the features and requirements for certification are defined then a certification testing program is created. All test plans are discussed and voted on and a series of ‘plugfests’ is scheduled. Plugfests are multivendor tests used to verify 11ax compatibility and interoperability across product lines. These plugfests start out very simple to establish basic connectivity and get more complex as the series continues. Once all plugfests are completed the data gained from the testing is used to develop the official Wi-Fi 6 certification test plan.
This is where we are today, with certification testing scheduled to start in the third quarter of 2019. As you can see chipset manufactures did not wait for the standard to be complete and neither does the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi 6 certification. The reason being is that the technical components are already firmly set, this is the normal process for the last few certifications.
Bottom-line, the technology is set, it’s not going to change at this point and vendors with ‘certifiable’ products are safe to purchase from. Certifiable is an extremely key point to watch for because a couple of vendors with their rush to deliver a product selected Wi-Fi chipset that was too early in the design cycle and as a result, those products will never meet Wi-Fi 6 certification requirements, it’s a hardware issue, not software.
Make sure to ask your vendor about this and also read their data sheets, look for words like ‘11ax compatible’ or ‘Wi-Fi 6 compliant,’ these words are warning signs that you should be very concerned about. If you see 11ax or more importantly Wi-Fi 6 certifiable, this statement will insure their product will meet Wi-Fi Alliance certification requirements when testing starts in Q3 of 2019.
Extreme Wi-Fi 6 products are ready, are you?
I hope this helps in making smart decisions for your next Wi-Fi upgrade or selecting a vendor!
To track where the IEEE 802/11ax standard and WFA certification are, follow these resources: