The Wi-Fi market is looking rather confused at the moment. The general feeling was that Wi-Fi 6, a standard that was ratified in 2018, would be widely adopted by now.
The new technologies were aimed at fulfilling the need for faster wireless technologies, essential to meet the demand for more broadband-intensive applications and to help meet the needs of employees working in a hybrid workplace, with the resulting demands that this has placed on people working from home.
Wi-Fi 6 and 6E were supposed to meet that need, but it hasn’t been plain sailing. In fact, there is a suggestion that the uptake of the technology has stalled and that, in some cases, users are waiting for Wi-Fi 7 to be ratified in order to jump straight into the newer technology – and this is despite the fact that this standard is still some way from entering the enterprise marketplace.
What is most remarkable of all is that this is taking place against a backdrop in which wireless connections are more crucial than ever and that Wi-Fi 6 is a standard that was agreed some years ago.
However, according to Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), the claims that the technology is not being adopted are very wide of the mark. “We are very positive about Wi-Fi6 and 6E – there is plenty of momentum behind them,” he says.
Rodrigues points to a survey by Comcast that shows the increased take-up of Wi-Fi devices and, in particular, the 59% of customers who have improved their Wi-Fi implementations. “While not all of that will be Wi-Fi 6, I am starting to see a pickup for 6 in enterprise, particularly in places like convention centres, hotels and stadiums,” he says.
Rodrigues adds that Wi-Fi 6E is certainly beginning to emerge as a viable technology, with some manufacturers beginning to roll out products.
However, this is the area that the Dell’Oro Group has highlighted as a major concern and a stumbling block for the roll-out of Wi-Fi 6. As CEO Tam Dell’Oro points out, the component supply issue is across the board of every network equipment manufacturer and across most, if not all, products. “The senior executives at the manufacturers estimate supply constraints will limit shipments through the second half of 2022,” she says.
Part of the problem is the fluctuating labour issue as fabrication facilities struggle with rising levels of absences – something that is not going to change quickly. “Economists from world premier organisations predict that qualified labour won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2023,” says Dell’Oro. “The point is that while advanced economies have access to good medical care, developing economies don’t – and much of the manufacturing is performed in developing economies. It is also the case that the pandemic has affected port staff, with fewer people offloading ships.”
But this is only part of the story. The pandemic has affected the roll-out of Wi-Fi 6 in other ways, too. The rise of the hybrid enterprise and the work-from-home movement has meant that organisations have had to redesign their entire corporate systems to support a new generation of remote workers.
On the face of it, this should mean even greater demand for an upgraded wireless technology, but as Dell’Oro explains, it’s not that simple. “Enterprises realised they had to change their network architecture to support a more distributed workforce,” she says. “This translates into more security as work from home connects to corporate files.”
Such has been the demand, however, that to get popular products to market quickly, executives at several network equipment manufacturers have said they will redesign equipment with components that are more available. The natural consequence of this, says Dell’Oro, is that “not-popular and niche products are likely to be more susceptible to supply constraints”, which means newer technologies will be left behind as suppliers look to work with what they already have available.
But the WBA’s Rodrigues is sceptical about this. “I know the Dell’Oro report suggests there is a supply challenge, but I don’t have any evidence that this will affect the take-up of Wi-Fi 6 or 6E,” he says, pointing to a trial currently taking place with Turk Telekom and various commercial enterprises running small-scale 6E projects.
Rodrigues says the freeing up of spectrum has accelerated the roll-out of 6E and he expects to see momentum build up.
However, there are some problems to overcome. Rodrigues admits that take-up has been slower in Europe than in the US, with many governments reluctant to give up spectrum that is currently being used. “In Europe, we have only opened half of the band to Wi-Fi,” he says.
There are two issues in Europe, says Rodrigues. “There are many different bodies in Europe that use that spectrum – some utilities and some railway companies, for example. And then there’s the issue that Europe is a very mobile centric region, more than the US is. There is a strong mobile industry that has also been pushing to use that spectrum.”
Rodrigues says there is a delicate balancing act to ensure existing users are not left behind, but there are still opportunities for wireless providers to make full use of the spectrum. “We’ve been trying to work with regulators to make sure Europe hasn’t fallen behind on Wi-Fi,” he adds.
However, Dell’Oro points out that even in the US, things are not straightforward. “The spectrum is still be deployed in areas such as smart streetlights with cameras and sensors, the management of electric grids and long-distance phone systems,” she says.
Dell’Oro says the latter is particularly difficult because the process of deploying 6E and complying with government regulations is not yet smooth. “For example, Wi-Fi 6E signal transmission outdoors requires management by an automated frequency control system,” she adds.
Spectrum issues to be resolved
Rodrigues is aware that there are still issues to be resolved on spectrum, but says everything is moving in the right direction. “The Wireless Broadband Alliance thinks it is OK to share the spectrum – there are smart technologies to help,” he says, adding that attention needs to paid to dense, urban areas and technologies need to be deployed to manage these challenges.
But the world is changing and there is a growing need to address the requirement for faster wireless broadband, says Rodrigues. The underlying issue is the way in which advanced data services are having an effect on the way people work. “Broadband and advanced services – augmented reality and virtual reality – have had an impact on our life already,” he says. “And the Covid pandemic has also reinforced how important Wi-Fi is for all of us.”
Integrators will wait
But while Rodrigues talks of the advances that have been made, Dell’Oro says her belief that there had been a slowdown in 6E take-up is based on conversations at the tail-end of last year. “During the last quarter, I interviewed systems integrators who told me that their enterprise customers were not asking for 6E, they were asking for Wi-Fi 6,” she says.
“Perhaps this should not be surprising as it is very early days for Wi-Fi 6E and most manufacturers haven’t launched enterprise-class Wi-Fi 6E access points. However, there has been a huge amount of press coverage over the past couple of years and users certainly should have been aware that 6E was coming.”
On top of that, says Dell’Oro, there is the issue that Wi-Fi 6E access points have far more parts than Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 – components such as radios and processors. Given the previously mentioned supply constraints, Dell’Oro believes businesses will be wary about going down that route, particularly when, as she points out, consumer-class Wi-Fi 7 products are already being shipped.
“I am hearing from industry participants that enterprise-class Wi-Fi 7 access points are likely to ship by the fourth quarter of next year,” she adds.
But this is not a situation that Rodrigues recognises. “I have my doubts that many people will hold on for Wi-Fi 7,” he says. “Maybe there will be someone who is very techy and will hold on for 7 products to appear, but most people will buy what is now available.”
There is little doubt that there is a need for faster technologies, and while some businesses can wait, there will be a need for more robust connectivity sooner rather than later, so Rodrigues’ thinking is probably correct. But that is not to gloss over the supply difficulties that Dell’Oro has spoken about – and that is before we talk about the situation in Europe, as various bodies scrap over spectrum availability.
As Dell’Oro points out, even in the US it is not always straightforward to find spectrum available, and that situation is much trickier in Europe.
So there is still plenty to sort out but, at first sight, there are still plenty of opportunities for Wi-Fi 6 in the near future.