The Beacon

What’s next in wireless technology? And how will it impact my enterprise mobility strategy?

July 13, 2021 by Bruce Willins

For months, we’ve been inundated with TV commercials, digital ads and media headlines touting 5G as the “next big thing” in wireless technology. On the wireless LAN side, there’s a new Wi-Fi® standard, called Wi-Fi 6. It has barely penetrated the market and there’s already a follow-on called Wi-Fi 6E.

Enterprise customers must be prepared to make some challenging, strategic technology decisions, as each new wireless technology promises speed, capacity and/or convenience benefits. However, not all these technologies may benefit your organization – and those that do may not offer the immediate return on investment (ROI) you’re expecting. In the interview that follows, Zebra Technologies engineering fellow Bruce Willins provides clarity on the current wireless inflection and how it will impact your enterprise mobility strategy in the coming months.

What is 5G, fundamentally speaking?

I’m often asked “what is 5G technology?” to which there is no answer since 5G is not any one single technology. It introduces an array of new technologies, such as mass-MIMO spatial diversity at the physical radio network layer and network slicing in the back-end infrastructure.

Once fully rolled out, 5G has the potential to deliver speeds equivalent to wired Internet (somewhere between 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE), reduce end-to-end latency, and enable new deployment models. But, it’s critical to understand, the transition from 4G to 5G is not going to be as cut and dry as the transition from 3G to 4G. It could take up to 15 years for us to fully realize the 5G benefits I just described.

What about Wi-Fi 6? What is it?

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi technology. Wi-Fi Alliance® has changed its naming nomenclature so you might know Wi-Fi 6 as 802.11ax. A few notable benefits include increased capacity, increased network density, provisions that enable more control of latency and bandwidth provisioning, and support for lower power IoT devices.

Wi-Fi 6 devices will operate in legacy Wi-Fi infrastructure and, similarly, legacy Wi-Fi devices will operate in a Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure. Wi-Fi 6 devices are increasingly coming to market and will proliferate in 2021.

What about Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6E is essentially the turbo version of Wi-Fi 6. Past Wi-Fi networks operated in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Wi-Fi 6E adds a third band: 6 GHz. The 6 GHz band offers more than twice (1200 MHz) the total available bandwidth – read as capacity – than the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands together. Thus, it has the potential to add significant capacity to customer Wi-Fi networks.

A question often asked is whether Wi-Fi 6E is a firmware upgrade from Wi-Fi 6. The answer is -generally no. The radio frequency (RF) hardware in the access point must be specifically designed to support 6 GHz.

Does Wi-Fi 6 offer a strong value proposition for businesses in its current state?

Wi-Fi 6 is a different story than 5G. Enterprise customers have expressed a number of compelling use cases for Wi-Fi 6 and, as they upgrade older access point infrastructure, they are also upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 enabled devices. As the infrastructure transitions, customers buying long-service-life enterprise devices want to make sure they can take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 capabilities.

Customers are increasingly seeing the need for a converged, voice-data Wi-Fi solution, which is also driving the need for Wi-Fi 6. More and more customers are also streaming video over their Wi-Fi networks, such as training videos. They’re also starting to increase the number of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and cross reality (XR) devices as well as Wi-Fi IoT devices. These all need Wi-Fi 6. Finally, in contrast to a cellular solution, enterprise customers have complete control over where, when, and how to rollout a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, which increases its value proposition automatically.

“… in contrast to a cellular solution, enterprise customers have complete control over where, when, and how to rollout a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, which increases its value proposition automatically."

Is there a rule of thumb on which Wi-Fi 6 flavor is the better starting point?

Again, it’s really going to depend on the use case. I strongly recommend that any organization considering an upgrade to either Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E sit down and have an honest conversation with a trusted technology partner about its current needs and anticipated growth plans, both from a workflow and technology utilization perspective. 

It doesn’t sound like there’s a single best roadmap that organizations should follow to transition to these next-generation wireless technologies.

There really isn’t. That’s why it’s so important to first define every application that needs wireless connectivity in some capacity. Then you can sit down with your technology partner to think about how much speed and bandwidth is needed to support those applications in a current state and the anticipated future state. You also have to figure out your tolerance level with regards to latency and reliability. How big of a deal will it be if a signal drops for a split second or doesn’t reach to the furthest edge of your operation?

You’ll also need to think about how many devices – and how many different types of devices – you need to support. Will a single LTE network be sufficient, or will it serve you best to utilize cellular and Wi-Fi at once? Can you afford to wait for 5G to mature more in the enterprise space as long as you upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E right now? And can you afford to upgrade twice in a two-year period if you opt to start with Wi-Fi 6 and progress to Wi-Fi 6E later?

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of considerations, but it is a baseline of what organizations need to think about before spending any money on new wireless technology. Though today’s wireless ecosystem is more complex than ever, it gives us more flexibility than we’ve ever had to build the right technology solutions for our customers based on their very specific needs. Plus, with the wide variety of flavors now available, businesses no longer have to settle for subpar wireless technology performance or struggle to scale certain applications. We’re going to be able to be very innovative from here on out. The sky’s no longer the limit.

*To read the full interview with Bruce, visit Zebra’s Your Edge blog.

The statements and opinions by each Wi-Fi Alliance member and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions or views of Wi-Fi Alliance or any other member. Wi-Fi Alliance is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by any member in posting to or commenting on this blog. Concerns should be directed to info@wi-fi.org.

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Bruce Willins

Zebra Technologies

Bruce Willins is a Technology Solutions Engineering Fellow at Zebra Technologies.

He has over 30 years of experience in the marketing and development of high technology products and has served in numerous senior level positions, including Vice President of Engineering for Hauppauge Computer, Vice President of R&D at Symbol Technologies, Vice President of Engineering / General Manager, Strategic Business at SMC Networks and President/Founder of Netways Inc. 

Mr Willins is a past member of the Motorola Science Advisory Board (SABA) and a Symbol Technologies Fellow. He is the recipient of the IEEE Charles Hirsch award, has numerous patents and is a frequent lecturer.