A new wave of Wi-Fi 6E products that take advantage of gobs of new spectrum in the 6GHz band are hitting the market, but the deployment of this new technology among cable operators will likely be limited to targeted, app-driven scenarios in the early going.
That's in large part because new broadband gateways that utilize Wi-Fi 6E will rely on more expensive tri-band set-ups that support Wi-Fi in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz bands. And operators will need a solid business reason to deploy those new products as Wi-Fi 6E-capable client devices start to trickle out into the market.
"There's no point in investing in tri-band 6GHz just to say it's sitting there waiting for clients to come in," Charles Cheevers, CTO of CommScope's Home Networks unit, said today during a "LiveLearning" webinar hosted by Light Reading in conjunction with SCTE/ISBE focused on Wi-Fi 6 and its linkages to 5G.
That process will take time, so specific applications will drive the need for these 6GHz radios among operators, at least early on, he predicted.
Some potential examples: the use of wireless set-tops with 6GHz radios that can stream video, including content in 4K, without buffering. Cheevers noted that CommScope is getting ready to introduce set-tops with Wi-Fi 6E into the labs by the end of 2021, and gear up for an expanded rollout in 2022. Meanwhile, both LG Electronics and Samsung have begun to put out premium TV models equipped with Wi-Fi 6E.
"Your [set-top] platform with Netflix is the one people will go to versus the Apple TV box, because you invested in the 6GHz connection," Cheevers said.
He also envisions the use of a 6GHz "clean channel" in apartments or other multiple-dwelling units that can unclog the kind of congestion that can crop up with legacy dual-band Wi-Fi technology.
Another potential use case is providing low-latency services for cloud gaming.
"Couple that with low latency DOCSIS and you have a cloud gaming network right through Wi-Fi that consumers will want to pay for," Cheevers predicted. "Low-latency is the new currency going forward."
But to get the most out of Wi-Fi 6 amid a proliferation of Wi-Fi access points and clients, operators will also have to be more thoughtful in how they monitor and manage those networks.
Faced with this threat of "self-interference" and "self-congestion," the need for a centralized intelligent management system that can optimize Wi-Fi networks for each individual home has become increasingly acute, Bill McFarland, CTO at Plume, said.
Every home needs a "just right solution" that balances aggregation into OFDMA groups connecting to nearby access points, he added. "The correct topology for each home will be different depending on the clients and the traffic patterns."
McFarland also referenced BSS Color, a tool in Wi-Fi 6 that can help mitigate interference of overlapping networks. But for the system to make the correct decisions and to get a fix on areas such as traffic patterns, client usage and traffic loads, BSS Color "requires a new paradigm in Wi-Fi management," he explained.
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G: Two peas in a pod?
Cable's exploration of Wi-Fi 6E and the use of the 6GHz band will also cross into 5G territory and require assurances that the two sides coexist and work together, John Chapman, CTO of broadband technologies at Cisco Systems, said.
It's no longer a question of either or. "You have to do both. Both are in the environment now," Chapman said, noting that many cable operators are already mobile network operators or on that path as they progress in "hybrid" approaches that link MVNO agreements with deployments of their own mobile network equipment and spectrum.
The good news is that Wi-Fi 6 and 5G share some similarities. Both use OFDMA to schedule their upstreams, and both are equipped to take advantage of the 1.2GHz-worth of spectrum available in the 6GHz band.
"They are more alike than different and they both need to be part of a deployment strategy for a service provider, and also for enterprise," Chapman said. "The trick is to make sure when both go into 6GHz they don't clobber each other, but that they work together in a complementary fashion." The Automatic Frequency Coordination concept could provide some aid in this area, he added.
Boiled down, this coexistence and technical similarity between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can open up new opportunities for cable operators to manage those networks for enterprise customers and others, Chapman said.
But that also means that operators will need to make a more concerted effort on establishing a core convergence that ties together their multiple access networks, down to a common enforcement of policies.
Amole Chobe, principal solution architect at Red Hat, highlighted this need as cable operators use wired, fixed wireless and mobile networks to serve enterprise customers and to help underpin private networks. 5G and Wi-Fi can coexist, but they also need a higher level of convergence spanning load balancing, aggregation and authentication, he said, suggesting that operators will need to pivot to software defined networking to pull it off.
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- CableLabs starts to connect on network convergence
- Why service providers fancy Wi-Fi 6
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading