Organizations anxious for more speed and bandwidth from their wireless networks are beginning to see products – from routers to devices – come to market that can leverage Wi-Fi 6E, the latest improvement in the ubiquitous wireless technology.
Just over a year after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened up the 6GHz spectrum to unlicensed use, Wi-Fi 6E routers from the likes of Netgear and Asus are available and Samsung has the Galaxy S21 Ultra and several TVs designed for the 6GHz spectrum. Aruba Networks this week unveiled the AP-635, which company officials claim is the industry’s first enterprise-grade Wi-Fi 6E solution and the initial product in what they say will be a growing solution set of campus access points supporting the new Wi-Fi band.
Aruba’s Wi-Fi 6E offerings will be part of its larger Edge Services Platform, a cloud-native solution leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to create more automated, unified and secure edge environments for enterprises. The FCC’s approval in April 2020 of the use of the 6GHz spectrum was a significant step forward for a country that – like most others – is seeing rapid growth in the use of mobile devices as well as the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is helping to drive a skyrocketing increase in the number of intelligent wireless products connecting to networks.
“It’s a doubling in the U.S. [of Wi-Fi capacity] and there hasn’t been any new capacity since 2003,” Gayle Levin, senior product marketing manager for Aruba, which is owned by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, told InternetNews. “It’s been a long time. It’s really the largest allocation in history. It’s a confirmation that Wi-Fi is critical, that we’re moving to a mobile-first world and that Wi-Fi has its place in it.”
Wi-Fi 6E Benefits
Most Wi-Fi devices now use either Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) or Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), running on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz spectrum. Wi-Fi 6E also is 802.11ax and builds on Wi-Fi 6 – it’s not a new version of Wi-Fi – and is aimed at products that can take advantage of the 6GHz band. It comes with a range of advantages. It offers an additional 1,200MHz of bandwidth, compared with the 500MHz at 5GHz and supports up to 14 80MHz channels or seven 160MHz channels, almost twice as many high-bandwidth channels as 5GHz. This will free up space for such bandwidth-hungry applications as 4K and 8K video streaming, virtual reality gaming and high-definition video conferencing, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance.
The improved capacity and speed of 6E will create more room for wireless traffic and take pressure off networks that currently are being oversubscribed, which can impact performance. More devices will be able to connect to Wi-Fi channels without grabbing bandwidth from other devices, the group said.
However, there are challenges with Wi-Fi 6E, according to Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research. One is that the 6GHz band is exclusive to 6E. Corporate devices designed for Wi-Fi 3, 4, 5 or 6 won’t be able to work with 6E, which should help shape an enterprise’s strategy for 6E.
“I wouldn’t replace 6 with 6E,” Kerravala told InternetNews. “I would use 6E in cases where I want mission-critical band. If I were a hospital, I’d put Wi-Fi strictly to connect all my patient devices, and then I’d use Wi-Fi 6 for guest access or other general-purpose connectivity. Manufacturing facilities historically have not connected a number of devices over Wi-Fi because Wi-Fi, being a shared spectrum and all the other devices, tends to be pretty flaky. Wi-Fi 6E will be much cleaner.”
The improved bandwidth is a significant benefit and even the lack of compatibility with other devices “can be a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s great because you get a nice clean spectrum that you can use for all your important things, but it’s not going to work with your older devices. That’s why most companies would want to use it in conjunction with Wi-Fi 6, not instead of. With 6E, it’s more like a sort of a specialized version of Wi-Fi.”
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6GHz Adoption is Spreading Worldwide
The United States was the first to open the 6GHz band and since then, 38 additional countries have followed suit, with more expected in the coming months, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. After the FCC’s 6GHz decision, analysts at the 650 Group said they expect the Wi-Fi 6E-based enterprise and outdoor wireless LAN market will grow beyond $1 billion by 2025, as will the consumer WLAN infrastructure market, which includes routers, consumer mesh, extenders and broadband customer premises equipment (CPE) with WLAN.
“Wi-Fi 6E technology addresses myriad pressing needs for enterprises and consumers, including enabling critical communications, supporting gigabit-per-second-class throughput and, most urgently, addressing the new realities that Wi-Fi communications are more critical than ever before in the post-COVID-19 world,” Chris DePuy, founding analyst for 650 Group, said at the time.
Wi-Fi 6E vs 5G
Wi-Fi 6E also is coming just as 5G takes hold in the cellular world. Like 6E, 5G promises faster speeds and greater capacity and device density. Wi-Fi continues to be used to offload traffic from more expensive cellular networks. Aruba’s Levin said that about 60 percent of cellular traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi networks today and expects that number to continue going up. Aruba’s Air Pass product is designed to efficiently make that handoff.
Kerravala noted that companies like Celona – which partners with Aruba – set up 5G for enterprises like they would Wi-Fi networks, including with 5G access points and controllers. “The difference is that Wi-Fi is still relatively cheap versus 5G, which tends to be pretty expensive,” he said, adding that over time, some organizations will have a mix of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E and 5G within their walls.
Levin expects corporations to embrace 6E as more products become available, such as the company’s new access point.
“What we’ll see is that if there’s a refresh coming up, a lot of enterprises will just want to future-proof and take advantage of the latest and greatest,” she said. “They likely will choose to invest in Wi-Fi 6E or at least consider it strongly so that they can support it when more devices come to market because the refreshes are only happening every five, 10 years. If you think of a large venue where they really need that capacity and they have that high density, we’re starting to see that rebound after COVID [and] this will support those indoor large venues today.”
Levin said she expects much of the IoT traffic to be tied to the 2.4GHz spectrum, given that many such devices send smaller packets, while the 5GHz band will continue to be used for much of the traffic that is there now. 6GHz will be reserved for those devices built to leverage the spectrum. Aruba’s Client Match technology can intelligently route traffic to the right spectrum.
Aruba’s Campus Access Point
The new access point, which will be available in the third quarter, provides tri-band coverage across 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz and supports up to seven 160MHz channels in the 6GHz band. It includes WPA3 security and Aruba’s Enhanced Open authentication technology for protecting passwords and data. There also is ultra tri-band filtering to enable simultaneous use of 5GHz and 6GHz without interference.
“The 5GHz band and the 6GHz band are very close – there’s really just 15MHz in between the two [and] there was a separate FCC ruling recently that actually allocated a little bit more spectrum at the top of the 5GHz band, making those two even closer,” Levin said. “The concern is that there will be interference and we would see that without this ultra tri-band filtrating. With this, it is dynamically filtering and allowing you to use more of the band without interference, so it’s unrestricted. As people are investing more in Wi-Fi 6E to get more capacity, they don’t want interference.”