Making the Grade: How Wi-Fi 6 addresses key networking problems for the enterprise

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Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) promises to bring a lot of changes to enterprise networking in 2019 and beyond. While none of Apple’s devices yet support it, it’s just a matter of time, and it’s important for IT administrators to begin planning for how the latest 802.11 standard from the IEEE will impact networks. While 802.11ac was focused on raw speed, Wi-Fi 6 and 802.11ax is focused on capacity and optimization. I’ll refer to the technology as Wi-Fi 6 for the remainder of the article, but it’s simply the marketing name the Wi-Fi Alliance has given 802.11ax.

About Making The Grade: Every Saturday, Bradley Chambers publishes a new article about Apple in education. He has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

Apple is traditionally a year behind a lot of the industry in adopting the latest Wi-Fi chips and other networking standards, and I don’t expect Wi-Fi 6 support across the Mac, iPad, and iPhone lineup until 2020 (but I’d love to be surprised). I believe this is largely due to Apple’s scale at purchasing, lead time for manufacturing, and waiting for additional optimizations from chip manufacturers.
With that being said, I do think it’s important to be thinking about Wi-Fi 6 if you are building a new network using E-rate funds or building a new campus. When I am building a Wi-Fi network, I like to plan for at least four years of use, so planning ahead for the latest Wi-Fi spec is ideal.

802.11ac brought immense speed increases to our Wi-Fi networks. For the first time, we were getting wired networking type speeds over Wi-Fi. It has served us extremely well. I can’t remember the last time I actually plugged into a wired ethernet connection. A well designed 802.11ac network blew away anything that 802.11n could offer. 802.11ac was conceived before the rapid growth of mobile devices, though. While it worked very well with smartphones and tablets, there was a lot still to be done.

Wi-Fi 6 addresses some key problems with Wi-Fi connections. One of the main ones is increasing capacity for dense environments. Setting up a Wi-Fi connection in your home is relatively easy. Unless you live in a multi-dwelling unit, it’s really one thing you can’t really screw up.
Designing Wi-Fi for the enterprise is entirely another process. You have to be concerned with co-channel interference, roaming, and other complicated issues. One of the biggest challenges at the moment is designing for capacity. As I write this article, I am at a hotel with my family. Between all five of us, we have eight Wi-Fi enabled devices. If you multiply this out by every guest in a hotel, you get a picture of capacity concerns. So how does Wi-Fi 6 address capacity?
OFDMA is one of the key pieces of technology in Wi-Fi 6. A 20 MHz channel can be partitioned into as many as nine smaller channels in Wi-Fi 6. Using OFDMA, a Wi-Fi 6 access point could simultaneously transmit small frames to nine 802.11ax enabled clients. One thing to remember as well is that Wi-Fi 6 brings back 2.4 GHz support. 802.11ac was 5 GHz only. While I do prefer the 5 GHz band (a minimum of 19 non-overlapping channels vs 3 for 2.4 GHz), 2.4 GHz is still popular due to its low cost and battery life.

Another key piece of the Wi-Fi 6 puzzle is called Target Wake Time (TWT). TWT allows clients to negotiate when and how often they will wake up to send or receive data. TWT increases device sleep time and, in turn, substantially improves battery life. Target Wake Time (TWT) will be very useful for both mobile devices and IoT devices (smart home). IoT style Wi-Fi 6 clients could potentially sleep for hours/days at a time to conserve battery life.

If you are building a new network for your enterprise, I would recommend to start purchasing Wi-Fi 6/802.11ax access points today. While many clients haven’t been released yet, it still makes sense to begin planning ahead. If you design a network to last four to five years, you’ll be getting ahead of the curve. I expect 2019 to be a year when clients start to trickle out, and 2020 when it explodes.

For home users, we started to see news of routers with Wi-Fi 6 technology announced late last year. I expect more news in the coming months. It’ll be interesting to see when upgraded Google WiFi and eero systems hit the market.

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About the Author

Bradley Chambers

@bradleychambers

Bradley lives in Chattanooga, TN where he manages Apple devices for a private school. 
Tips, feedback, corrections and questions can be sent to [email protected]

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