5G, the fifth generation of wireless networks that will enable a wide range of new applications, from virtual reality to autonomous vehicles, has received is fair share of attention and hype. However, another technology will be arriving much more quickly to help fill the gap for enterprise organizations between 5G’s promise and its realistic timeline: 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, or high-efficiency Wi-Fi (HEW).
Although service providers have gotten a start with 5G rollouts, it will be years before it becomes ubiquitous. Wi-Fi 6 is happening now and will enable enterprise use cases much sooner. But rather than a replacement for 5G, it’s designed to be a complementary technology for enterprises and consumers, allowing them to hop between networks seamlessly. Wi-Fi 6 is optimized for capacity and density, whereas 5G is optimized for coverage. And that will be a boon to many emerging applications—such as those that are part of the Internet of Things IoT)—that require high-reliability, low-latency connectivity at scale, with quality of experience protection. While there are uses cases that will be exclusive to each (for example, Wi-Fi 6 will cover the “carpeted enterprise” as well as retail, public venues, and hotspots, while 5G is targeting transportation, outdoor urban and rural fixed wireless and private LTE/5G), there will be some crossover in areas such as AR/VR and high-bandwidth video as well as the explosion of the IoT, including industrial and manufacturing.
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As the industry waits for 5G, Wi-Fi 6 provides plenty of advantages today that support new applications and outcomes, enabling enhanced mobile broadband, massive-scale IoT, and mission-critical services. Benefits of Wi-Fi 6 include:
- Higher data rates, which enable next-generation applications such as 4K/8K and AR/VR video
- Increase in network capacity, with 3-4x more throughput than 802.11ac
- IoT at scale, enable by reduced latency and greater reliability with hundreds of devices per access point
- Faster device adoption, and up to 3x more efficient at conserving battery life
These benefits are enabled by new features being incorporated into Wi-Fi 6, including:
- Orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA). OFDMA allows an access point to allocate the whole channel to a single user at a time or partition a channel to serve multiple users simultaneously. OFDMA is ideal for low-bandwidth applications and results in better frequency reuse, reduced latency, and increased efficiency.
- Target wake-up time (TWT): TWT will be very useful for both mobile devices and IoT devices. TWT uses negotiated policies based on expected traffic activity between 802.11ax clients and an 802.11ax access point to specify a scheduled wake time for each client to send or receive, conserving battery life.
- Multi-User Multiple In/Multiple Out (MU-MIMO). With MU-MIMO, multiple antennas, let the access point talk to multiple devices at once. The difference with Wi-Fi 6 is now the devices can respond to the wireless access point at the same time.
So, when should we expect to see Wi-Fi 6 and 5G in action? As is oftentimes the case, adoption of both of these new standards requires an upgrade in infrastructure and devices. According to a recent NWN Carousel survey, 50% of enterprises plan to upgrade their physical Wi-Fi network as part of Wi-Fi 6. One thing is for sure: enterprise networks will have transitioned to Wi-Fi 6 long before 5G becomes mainstream. Most industry watchers don’t expect 5G ubiquity for at least five years—and some say it may be a decade. Meanwhile, although the standard has not been fully ratified, several vendors have announced Wi-Fi 6 access points and enterprises are expected to transition to the new standard over three years from 2019 to 2022.
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Customers, of course, have their own timelines. In the NWN Carousel survey, 26.8% of respondents indicate they were planning near-term Wi-Fi 6 with no plans for 5G in the next year, while nearly half that—12.6%—said they have applications and use cases that require early-adopter use of 5G in the next year, but no plans for Wi-Fi 6. Nearly 20% said they have use cases that would benefit from both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G over the next year, while 41% said they have no plans for either Wi-Fi 6 or 5G for over a year.