Wireless Global Congress and CES 2022 Bring Wi-Fi’s 6 GHz Revolution to the Forefront

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By Andrew Spivey | 1Q 2022 | IN-6429

A clear consensus exists amongst Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) members that a Wi-Fi revolution is currently underway, and that it is being spearheaded by both the adoption of the 6 GHz spectrum and a convergence with 5G. This insight examines these two interlinked developments and assesses their potential implications.

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WBA Highlights Wi-Fi's Continued Innovation on Multiple Fronts

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Members of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) recently laid out their vision for Wi-Fi’s future in the alliance’s first event of the year, the Wireless Global Congress Asia Pacific 2022, held in Dubai from January 25th through 27th. Speakers at the event, which was titled ‘Wi-Fi Revolution: Driving Digital Growth’, covered a broad array of themes, ranging from zero trust architecture (ZTA), enhanced determinism, OpenRoaming, Offload Monetization, spectrum sharing, AI-enabled converged networks, and the state of the Wi-Fi chipset market. Yet whilst the topics varied, there was a clear consensus amongst all the speakers that the heart of the Wi-Fi Revolution was underpinned by two interlinked developments: the imminent realization of the true potential of the recently released 6 GHz spectrum, and the widespread acknowledgement that 5G and Wi-Fi are in fact complimentary, not competing, technologies.

Wi-Fi 6E and 5G Convergence are Poised to Redefine Wi-Fi

IMPACT


It is worth discussing the two pillars of this revolution in detail, as they are going to determine the future of Wi-Fi. First is the significance of the allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use. Previously, only 580 MHz of unlicensed spectrum was accessible, spread across the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, resulting in narrow channel sizes and high levels of interference. With the release of the 6 GHz spectrum an additional, and previously untouched, 1200 MHz of spectrum will be available, which offers the prospect of greatly increased data rates and power efficiency, as well as vastly reduced latency and network interference, alongside numerous other benefits. As of January 2022, ten countries have released the entire 6 GHz band (5925-7125 MHz), and a further five countries and the EU have released the lower portion of the 6 GHz band (5925-6425 MHz). There are also thirteen countries that are actively in the process of considering allocating some or all of the 6 GHz spectrum, and more are certain to follow soon. So that the benefits of the 6 GHz spectrum could be harnessed immediately, the most recent Wi-Fi generation, Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax (which was previously only compatible with the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands) was ‘extended’ onto the 6 GHz spectrum in 2020, to produce Wi-Fi 6E. Wi-Fi 6E will utilize the wider channels and clean spectrum of the 6 GHz frequency band to push the 802.11ax standard to its limits. Following this, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) plans to finalize the Wi-Fi 7 (otherwise known as 802.11be) standard in early 2024. This next generation of Wi-Fi will be designed to unleash the full potential of the 6 GHz spectrum, with Wi-Fi 7 offering 320 MHz channels (compared to Wi-Fi 6E’s 160 MHz), a maximum throughput of 30 Gbps (a giant leap from Wi-Fi 6E’s 9.6 Gbps), 16x16 MU-MIMO (double Wi-Fi 6E’s 8x8 MU-MIMO), 4k QAM modulation, Multi-Link Operation (MLO), and more.

The second pillar of the revolution is the relationship between 5G and Wi-Fi. In recent years, the revolutionary potential of Wi-Fi 6E has been overshadowed by the emergence of 5G, in part because large telecoms have spent considerable resources in promoting 5G’s potential to consumers, and also because the Wi-Fi 6E name itself obscures it’s the true potential, giving the impression that it is a mere steppingstone between two generations. It has often been assumed that the arrival of 5G would come at the detriment of Wi-Fi, but this couldn’t be further from the truth—the dynamic between 5G and Wi-Fi is not a zero-sum game, but rather is a case of “a rising tide lifts all boats”. This is because the relationship between 5G and Wi-Fi 6E is complimentary, and in the long term will ultimately see increased convergence. In the future telecoms will be actively looking offload 5G customers onto Wi-Fi networks in order to reduce network congestion, lower operational costs, and improve the customer experience. One early example of this can be found in Hotspot 2.0, where devices are automatically connected to the Wi-Fi Hotspot when they are in the vicinity. Future technological advancements will make the transition between cellular to Wi-Fi networks seamless, and correspondingly, the share of offloading traffic is predicted to rise substantially with 5G.

Navigating the Wi-Fi Revolution

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It is important for both Wi-Fi chipset and access point manufacturers to understand that the release of the 6 GHz spectrum is undoubtedly a revolution, and that the revolution has already been initiated by the emergence of Wi-Fi 6E. In order to increase productivity and remain competitive in the market, enterprises, especially those operating in high-density environments, will be expected to migrate to Wi-Fi 6E at present in order to take advantage of a clean spectrum and to secure greater throughput, guaranteed low-latency, and improved Quality of Service (QoS). Moreover, the results of recent WBA trials of Wi-Fi 6E (including one conducted by Türk Telekom in partnership with Broadcom and Intel in January 2022) have suggested that the capabilities unlocked by the 6 GHz band will enable Wi-Fi to be applied to new sectors, such as industrial settings where previously Wi-Fi’s insufficient reliability and non-deterministic latency had ruled it out as an option. Whilst barriers to adoption do remain—namely the considerable costs associated with network installation and feelings of upgrade fatigue—because Wi-Fi 6E and later Wi-Fi 7 will remain the only viable option to serve the high demands of enterprise network requirements in the near future, adoption will be driven in part by necessity. There are already a range of enterprise Wi-Fi 6E access points on the market, including the Aruba 630 series and EnGenius’s ECW336, and enterprise Wi-Fi 7 routers will arrive alongside the finalization of 802.11be by the IEEE.

Whilst enterprises may have a greater incentive to adopt the 6 GHz band in the short term, the many benefits of the new technology will also appeal to residential consumers. One such area is in the gaming and the Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) segments, as they have high throughput and low-latency requirements that only Wi-Fi 6E, and later Wi-Fi 7, will be able to satisfy. Reflecting this market demand, Asus announced the Wi-Fi 6E ROG Rapture GT-AXE16000 gaming router at CES 2022. Another demand for the 6 GHz spectrum has been created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as the global shift towards home working has triggered the knock-on effect of increasing consumer requirements for stable home networking. In the near term, an increasing number of consumers who are working remotely will turn to Wi-Fi 6E Mesh solutions, such as those offered by TP-Link, in order to achieve Wi-Fi connectivity free from interference throughout their residence. The uptake of Wi-Fi 6E is also being driven by supply, as a range of high-end consumer devices are already Wi-Fi 6E compatible, including laptops (such as the Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Gen 4) and smartphones (one example being the Google Pixel 6). Consumers will be tempted to purchase Wi-Fi 6E routers to unlock the potential of their Wi-Fi 6E devices, a trend that will escalate as more Wi-Fi 6E compatible devices hit the market, and the standard becomes more prevalent. This same phenomenon will occur with Wi-Fi 7. Moreover, as Wi-Fi becomes more congested in general, consumers will view shifting their 6 GHz compatible devices to the 6 GHz spectrum as a means to reduce congestion on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, helping to improve the performance of their other legacy devices still reliant on these lower spectrum bands.

Wi-Fi 6E has initiated the adoption of the 6 GHz spectrum in both the residential and enterprise space, and once Wi-Fi 7 ushers in the next generation of Wi-Fi beginning in 2023, the transition will accelerate further. Because Wi-Fi 6E will have guaranteed a large install base of existing 6 GHz compatible devices, the migration towards the next generation of Wi-Fi will be eased, further helped by the fact that Wi-Fi 7 access points will also be backwards compatible with all legacy devices. By the year 2026, ABI Research forecasts that there will be 1.1 billion devices supporting the 6 GHz band on the market. Yet, despite this rapid growth of 6 GHz compatible devices over the coming years, manufacturers should also recognize that they will not negate the need for support of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum bands, as many devices will still rely on these frequencies. Alongside the above, manufacturers should also keep a keen eye on the ongoing allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum globally, as this is the somewhat unpredictable variable which has the potential to expand, or potentially limit, the available Wi-Fi 6E markets.

Finally, a word on the convergence of Wi-Fi and 5G. In the past several years, the WBA has been coordinating with the Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (NGMN) to unify the strategy for the convergence, and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) has defined in the 5G Release 16 a function called ATSSS (Access Traffic Steering, Switching, & Splitting) which manages the convergence of Wi-Fi and 5G. Whilst there are still several challenges to be overcome before the convergence can transpire, such as network congestion, security vulnerabilities, and the potential for poor user experience, the increased convergence of Wi-Fi and cellular networks is just a matter of time, and network operators need to begin preparing for both direct and indirect offload monetization strategies. As the amount of offloading traffic is predicted to rise substantially alongside the roll out of 5G, the potential for offload monetization will increase accordingly, and network operators need to have the right strategies in place ahead of time in order to be in a position to capitalize on this development.

 

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