The Case for Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6

In a recent Sniff Wi-Fi post, your humble blogger argued that upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 is a fool's errand. 

A number of respected WLAN professionals disagree with my argument. They believe that many organizations would be well-served to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, rather than waiting for Wi-Fi 6E. 

Why upgrade to a non-6 GHz standard, when 6 GHz Wi-Fi has now been approved? There are reasons...

Making one's own counter argument is a tricky endeavor. The temptation to construct and incinerate straw men is powerful. There is a reason that the right to cross-examine is ingrained in the constitution of the United States of America, as part of the 6th Amendment:
"...The accused shall enjoy the right... to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor..."
In layman's terms (and this has to be the first literal usage of the phrase "layman's terms" in the history of Sniff Wi-Fi), the above is referred to as "the right to confront your accuser". The 6th is part of the "due process" section of the constitution's Bill of Rights, along with the 4th (prohibition of warrant-less searches), the 5th (right to remain silent), the 7th (right to a trial by jury), and the 8th (right to get out on bail while awaiting trial).

For those who live outside the United States, the above may seem irrelevant. Understanding the spirit of due process, however, is relevant. The core idea of the 6th is, "don't believe anything until it has been cross-examined". (Which is a reason why I've repeatedly proposed-and-had-shot-down the idea of "WLPC Cross Examination Sessions", where vendors and others can have their WLPC presentations vetted for truthiness.) Essentially, cross-examination is an anti-PR mechanism. The authors of the US constitution knew that human beings naturally tend to massage facts to fit their preferred point of view. Cross-examination prevents massaged facts from becoming Truth.

The point of all this is that Sniff Wi-Fi readers are encouraged to seek out the opinion of those who endorse the idea of upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, rather than waiting for Wi-Fi 6E. Your humble blogger has made an earnest attempt to present those people's arguments, but nothing compares to a true cross-examination.

With that out of the way, here are three big arguments (the arguments your humble blogger is aware of, that is) for upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 now, instead of waiting for the recently approved Wi-Fi 6E:

Argument #1: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is a big upgrade from Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), even without 6 GHz

Wi-Fi 6 supports a number of technological improvements, the most important of which is OFDMA.

From a network engineer's perspective, the key to OFDMA is that is allows 80 MHz wide channels to be used without compromising performance in high mobility or high client density Wi-Fi environments. OFDMA allows individual client devices to transmit and receive data over channel widths as narrow as 2 MHz, even if the AP's full channel width is much wider. When environments become places where less mobility happens and fewer clients are present, ODFMA allows for the AP's full channel width to be used by each individual client device, thus maximizing raw throughput.

(Side note: OFDMA is a new enough Wi-Fi technology that the above paragraph is unproven. In theory, OFDMA offers flexibility. In reality, we don't know yet whether real-world client devices will adhere to OFDMA when Wi-Fi networks are under stress, or self-revert to OFDM. Clients reverting to OFDM would snuff out the major performance upgrade of Wi-Fi 6.)

IT organizations can contact their preferred reseller or vendor today, sign a purchase order for Wi-Fi 6 access points, and see a Wi-Fi performance improvement in short order. That is not the case with Wi-Fi 6E, a technology whose real-world APs and client devices do not yet have shipping dates.

Argument #2: Wi-Fi 6E APs may not be available for many months, due to bureaucratic delays

All commercial wireless devices in the United States must be certified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is an arm of the federal government.


Two problems exist, relative to the FCC and 6 GHz Wi-Fi. One, the certification timeline for new Wi-Fi devices can be a matter of months, not weeks or days. Two, FCC certification requires in-person diagnostic testing of Wi-Fi APs and clients. Ostensibly, in-person testing is on hold until COVID-19 work-from-home requirements are eased.

In addition to the aforementioned, FCC-related issues, a non-FCC problem exists as well: enterprise AP vendors have to choose to make and sell Wi-Fi 6E APs.

A non-cynic's concern might be that work-from-home policies will prevent RF & chip experts  from getting in the lab to design and create new AP models.

A cynic's concern might be that AP vendors have produced a ton of Wi-Fi 6 APs, and they won't want those APs to become obsolete only a year or so after being made available.

Whether one believes about work-from-home policies, bureaucracy and cynicism, the bottom line is that 6 GHz channels may now be available in the USA, but Wi-Fi folks still don't know exactly when the APs that use them will be for sale.

Argument #3: Widespread Wi-Fi client support for Wi-Fi 6E may take years, effectively making 6 GHz Wi-Fi unusable in many organizations for years.

Notwithstanding supply chain delays due to COVID-19, Apple has a new iPhone scheduled for release later this year. New laptops will likely come in early 2021, along with new iPads. Galaxy smartphones and tablets from Samsung will likely get an upgrade within twelve months as well. Dell, HP and other laptop manufacturers will likely introduce new products, too. Nobody can predict the future (especially nowadays), but your humble blogger expects all of those devices to support 6 GHz Wi-Fi.

The problem is, many wireless network engineers have to be concerned with more than just the most popular Wi-Fi devices. They have to be concerned with all Wi-Fi devices. If, for example, a high school gets upgraded to Wi-Fi 6E APs and a handful of students can't connect their smartphones in class because their smartphones don't support 6 GHz, then there is a chance that the school district's wireless team will revert the whole dang deployment to Wi-Fi 6.

It should be noted that skilled wireless engineers can avoid the aforementioned scenario. It's not unfeasible to have two channel groups for APs -- one that includes 6 GHz channels and one that doesn't -- in environments where some client devices lack full channel support. Your humble blogger created just that type of setup at USC, when it was discovered that barcode scanners for athletics, cinema and theater tickets only supported U-NII-1 (36 to 48) and U-NII-3 (149 to 161) channels in the 5 GHz band. Still, not all Wi-Fi professionals are equally skilled (as was revealed at USC, when the initial proposal presented to yours truly was to either buy dozens of new barcode scanners, or disable fourteen channels from U-NII-2 (52 to 64) and U-NII-2e (100 to 144) across the entire 8,000 AP network). Some may view Wi-Fi 6E as something not worth dealing with, at least until the vast majority of Wi-Fi client devices support 6 GHz.

Are these three reasons compelling enough to outweigh Sniff Wi-Fi's position that the prudent move is to skip Wi-Fi 6 AP upgrades and wait for Wi-Fi 6E instead? Each wireless network engineer has to decide for him-or-herself.

(Side note: If anyone feels that the above arguments were presented unfairly, or that other arguments in favor of upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 were missed, please do comment below or contact your humble blogger using the contact information below.)

***

Ben Miller works as a Wi-Fi contractor, with a background in pre- and post-installation consulting, technical and marketing writing, and instruction for vendor-neutral and vendor-specific Wi-Fi training. You can contact Ben via email, or follow him on Twitter and Twitch, using the contact information below.

If you like Ben's blog, you can support it by shopping through his Amazon link, or becoming a Patron on Patreon. He does a weekly educational Twitch stream about Wi-Fi.

Thank you.

Twitter: @benmiller

Twitch: @ben_sniffwifi

ben_miller at icloud dot com


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