The Other New Wireless Standard

Wi-Fi 6 product launches hint at a coming tech scuffle

On 29 April, Cisco announced access points and switches for Wi-Fi 6. More importantly, the company is promoting the latest Wi-Fi standard as a core connecting fabric that will unite all devices and simplify their management, and it’s pushing its efforts to support “frictionless” roaming between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G connections.

Cisco unveiled its commercial-grade access devices, Catalyst 9100 and Meraki MR45 and MR55, along with its Catalyst 9600 switch to enable enterprise users to roll out Wi-Fi 6 services to users.

Wi-Fi 6 is only expected to be officially in use in late 2019, but in a way, Cisco is late to the party as Aruba, Huawei, Netgear and TP-Link already have their Wi-Fi 6 products. Even though Cisco’s product launches have been expected, they’re important to the proliferation of Wi-Fi 6 given that the company is the world’s largest supplier of corporate Wi-Fi solutions, with close to 50% market share in 2018.

Wi-Fi 6 is a new nomenclature by the Wi-FI Alliance, designed to simplify the understanding of wireless networking compatibility. The technology, which is based on the underlying 802.11ax standard, brings a host of new advantages including faster speeds, a nearly fourfold improvement in capacity, greater security, better power management and lower latency (see Wi-Fi Alliance to Eliminate Tech Jargon).

Several features of Wi-Fi 6 appear to encroach on the headline traits of 5G. Beyond top speeds of 9.6 Gbps, Wi-Fi 6 is supposed to be a protocol for connected things, with features intended to optimize battery life and allowing enterprises to deploy standard-based sensors into their networks for improved device management.

During the past year, 5G has grabbed more than its fair share of headlines, but when it comes to bits and bytes, Wi-Fi carries a greater load. Wi-Fi is one of the greatest success stories in technology and this new generation will be used for years to come, working alongside cellular connectivity. Indeed, Cisco’s announcement is interesting in light of controversial recent proposals from the European Union for a Wi-Fi-based standard in connected cars. The move is a blow to the mobile industry, which regularly talks up the potential of 5G in autonomous transport. It was heavily criticized by the GSMA, while Deutsche Telekom and BMW have called on Germany’s government to block the move.

Mobile operators might question the long-term viability of Wi-Fi as 5G connectivity becomes widely available, but the two technologies will, in most cases, work in tandem rather than against each other. The OpenRoaming Federation, announced by Cisco at MWC Barcelona 2019, is an industry consortium that aims to support seamless hopping between the two wireless technologies. Cisco also announced last week that the consortium welcomed Samsung, Boingo and GlobalReach as members, to collaborate on methods to allow a smooth hand-off between 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

Cisco expects the new standard to be incorporated into TVs, doorbells and household appliances before the end of 2019. Already most late-model flagship smartphones support the 802.11ax standard for Wi-Fi 6 connectivity.

One thing is clear: there’s another new generation in town.