Should I Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6?

The latest wireless standard, 802.11ax (more commonly known as Wi-Fi 6), is about to be ratified by the IEEE and offers the potential for significant improvements over any existing Wi-Fi deployment. So, everybody should rush out and upgrade their wireless infrastructure – right?

As you’d probably expect, the answer isn’t as simple as that. Before we look at some of the considerations to undertake a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, it’s worth looking at the benefits that could be on offer.

What makes Wi-Fi 6 so good?

Wi-Fi 6 promises speeds up to 4x faster than previous Wi-Fi standards. Besides the increase in capacity, Wi-Fi 6 also allows more devices to connect to each Access Point. This is important for the Internet of Things (IoT) deployments, where there is exponential growth in the number of devices connecting to the network.

Finally, it can improve battery efficiency in user devices such as smartphones, tablets, and IoT devices when connecting to wireless networks – very useful when large-scale IoT rollouts are in play.

Considerations before deploying Wi-Fi 6

With the significant increase in speed comes the challenges of ensuring a stable and reliable network that can utilize increased performance. For example, with throughputs over 1Gbps per Access Point, there is a risk of bottlenecks on the AP’s uplinks that connect it to the network. Without upgrading existing links, either to multi-gigabit (2.5Gbps/5Gbps) or using multiple 1Gbps links, then some of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 will be lost.

Even powering the Access Points over Power over Ethernet (PoE)—the standard method for most deployments—requires careful consideration. Access Points with up to 8x8 spatial streams have increased power requirements, so PoE+ (30W per port) becomes the minimum requirement. Before undertaking any Wi-Fi 6 deployment, it’s essential to make detailed PoE power distribution plans.

And don’t forget the age-old problem with new Wi-Fi standards—are vendors offering you a pre-standard version that may cause compatibility issues down the line? Be sure to check feature compatibility in detail and don’t assume all Wi-Fi 6 products are the same.

Are there alternatives to Wi-Fi 6?

There’s no doubt that Wi-Fi 6 offers a range of – potentially – powerful features. As well as ensuring your LAN infrastructure offers the speeds and power requirements to make an upgrade feasible, there is something else to consider: will the devices connecting to my network be able to use the increased performance?

Unless your portfolio of laptops/tablets/smartphones/IoT devices is new (from late-2019), then they won’t support Wi-Fi 6. Even then, many top-end devices aren’t certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance as Wi-Fi 6 ready. They will still work on the new infrastructure but will have reduced performance.

So, you must consider if it is worth investing in Wi-Fi 6 if none of your client devices can make the most of it.

That is not to say you shouldn’t start planning for Wi-Fi 6. Getting the LAN infrastructure in place to allow for Access Point upgrades at the time that suits your organization makes complete sense. As with all new standards, there are considerable benefits to upgrading at the right time.

It’s also worth assessing Wi-Fi 5 options that may deliver everything you need from a wireless infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of Wi-Fi 6 and without the need for significant network upgrades. The Hybrid Wireless solution from Allied Telesis, for example, can offer seamless roaming and high throughputs through a unique combination of Channel Blanket and cell-based technology – with a range of automation tools to improve network performance and reduce management costs.

How do I decide?

The advice is straightforward:

  • Take the time to assess what you’ll gain from Wi-Fi 6 (including when those gains would start)
  • If it makes sense within the next 6-12 months to do this, start planning your LAN infrastructure upgrade now and get that right first. Please don’t rush into deploying access points assuming they alone will solve your Wi-Fi problems!
  • If there is no business case for Wi-Fi 6 right now, don’t discount other options that can deliver a robust solution until a wireless upgrade makes more sense.