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WiFi 6 to enable SA’s IOT-driven industries

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While the majority of industries are expected to benefit from the much-anticipated release of WiFi 6, it is industries that are the highest users of Internet of things (IOT) devices that will reap the rewards.

This is according to industry watchers, who say the introduction of the next-generation wireless network will have significant impact on business and users in the coming years.

An IOT report from research and advisory firm Gartner forecasts the enterprise and automotive sector to have an estimated 5.8 billion IOT endpoints in 2020, a 21% increase from 2019.

Dudu Mkhwanazi, CEO of non-profit organisation Project Isizwe, says with WiFi 6 comes greater speed, more connected devices and increased battery life on handsets due to intelligent management of device sleep times.

“All industries will benefit from the increased throughput in dense user environments; it literally packs more data into the same radio waves. We have all heard of massive IOT in all the 5G hype but WiFi 6 is very good at handling industries that require many IOT devices,” Mkhwanazi says.

Christian Canales, senior principal analyst in the technology and service provider research group at Gartner, also points to WiFi 6 as a solid option for organisations driven by IOT.

“An important trend for the enterprise campus market remains operational technology and IT convergence, the blending of facilities management with lines of business capabilities, under the enterprise network. WiFi 6 will help IOT become a growing part of the enterprise environment.”

Gartner has also identified “public venue connectivity” to be one of the industries likely to be significantly impacted by WiFi 6.

“The combination of lower inter-device interference, the ability to scale up more easily and higher bandwidth, among others, makes WiFi 6 an improved WiFi standard to support high-density user environments. Spanning sport venues such as stadiums, shopping malls, convention centres, airports and so forth, WiFi 6 improves the ability to support denser user environments.”

WiFi evolution

Since the introduction of WiFi more than 20 years ago, wireless technology standards have evolved from 802.11b, which was the first to emerge under the WiFi brand, to 802.11ac, the most widely WiFi technology deployed today.

WiFi 6 or 802.11ax is the next-generation technology solution following the current WiFi standard.

Cisco says digitisation, mobility and IOT are driving the need for connectivity. According to the company, in three years, 28 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, many of which, like robots, production lines and medical devices, will communicate over a wireless network.

Against this backdrop, the networking solutions giant stresses the need for a redesigned wireless standard that is more responsive to present and future challenges.

Commenting on the impact of WiFi 6 on business in the coming years, Garsen Naidu, Cisco SA country manager, says: “In the first phase, we expect the new wireless standard to gain a significant foothold in the B2B field, where it brings important innovations.

“We will see it, together with other technologies, penetrate significantly into manufacturing, into the logistics industry. The technology is also more effective in high-density settings like large lecture halls, stadiums and conference rooms, so we are likely to see significant penetration in these settings too. And, with its extremely low latency, WiFi 6 also promises to open up new opportunities in AR/VR, healthcare, and self-driving vehicles.”

For Gartner, WiFi 6 will bring several performance improvements. These include 10Gbps of wireless throughput operating in the 5GHz frequency band, lower channel contention problems between WiFi access points and improvements with multiuser multiple input/multiple output (MU-MIMO) technology.

Canales explains: “The impact on businesses and end-users is a better WiFi user experience. At the same time, most of these performance improvements require that the end points (the wireless clients: laptops, smartphones, etc) also support WiFi 6.

“While WiFi 6 is backward-compatible with 802.11a/g/n/ac, the full benefits of deploying it will only come into play when wireless clients also support WiFi 6. As the installed base of WiFi 6 wireless clients grows over time, the benefits will become more tangible.”

Mkhwanazi points out WiFi 6 is around 40% faster than WiFi 5 but more importantly has much greater throughput.

This, she says, allows many more devices to be connected without impacting user performance. “More and more devices are being connected in the business and we are seeing a sharp increase in BYOD [bring your own device] so only WiFi 6 devices with 4x4 and 8x8 MIMO are poised to handle this.” 

Challenges abound

Despite all the advantages of WiFi 6, there are some potential challenges ahead.   

According to Mkhwanazi, one of these is that despite evidence of a steady stream of WiFi 6 routers hitting the market, the only two phones capable of using it at present are the Galaxy S10 and iPhone 11.

Gartner believes the main challenge will be the need for multi-gigabit switching infrastructure, to connect the WiFi 6 access points.

“The absence of multi-gigabit-capable uplinks is no longer a viable alternative with WiFi 6. Not only does it become a much more visible network design flaw, but it also strongly questions the mere need to upgrade to WiFi 6.

“The issue then becomes whether enterprises have those multi-gigabit switching connections in place to support the upgrade to WiFi 6. In most cases, the answer is ‘no’. Today, the installed base of multi-gigabit switch ports remains small, and a barrier to broader adoption remains pricing, with multi-gigabit mostly commanding a price premium of at least 50% over 1G copper.”

Much like Gartner, Cisco’s Naidu stresses rethinking network architectures. “We see promising business opportunities and a wide range of new applications. At the same time, with hundreds and thousands of new devices connecting to wireless networks, IT teams are facing increasing complexity. So we need to rethink IT architectures from the ground-up,”  

SA’s prospects

Mkhwanazi is of the view that SA is somewhat ready for WiFi 6, but notes the country has so few enabled handsets and will only see PCs with built-in WiFi 6 adaptors in the future.

Canales indicates the move to WiFi 6 is not specific to any country and will happen broadly on a global basis.

“Backward-compatibility allows integration with legacy 802.11ac and 802.11n infrastructure. This provides the option for enterprises to gradually upgrade to WiFi 6 with a mix-and-match approach between standards.

“We are already seeing businesses beginning to purchase WiFi 6 access points, even though the standard has not yet been ratified. WiFi 6 comes with performance improvements, but 5Mbps of WiFi throughput per device remains largely enough for most business applications, which would question the need for most organisations to upgrade to WiFi 6 for the next two to three years. We expect the shift to WiFi 6 will nonetheless happen, driven by future-proofing and vendor push,” Canales concludes.

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