After several years of anticipation, Wi-Fi 6 is arriving in customers' homes. Based on the IEEE 802.11ax standards, Wi-Fi 6 brings many exciting improvements to a technology that's now two decades old, and the industry sees it as a transformative technology for the market.
Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai perhaps summed the excitement best when he said, "The American consumer's wireless experience is about to be transformed for the better."
The improvements will generate renewed interest in Wi-Fi products and upgrades, creating an opportunity for communications services providers (CSPs) to expand and enhance their customer offerings. For the technology to achieve its full promise of drastically transforming the customer experience, however, connected environments such as smart homes will need to be managed intelligently.
As CSPs prepare for consumer deployments, they need to consider how to maintain a quality experience for customers while adapting to the new complexity that Wi-Fi 6 brings to the home network.
The Wi-Fi 6 market and current developments
Wi-Fi 6 market adoption began last year, and industry experts expect to see rapid growth in 2021. The Wi-Fi Alliance, which sets standards for and certifies Wi-Fi 6 products, anticipates close to 2 billion Wi-Fi 6 devices to be shipped this year to consumers and organizations. The Alliance has certified more than 1,400 Wi-Fi 6 products as of March 2021, ranging from home gateways to tablets, smart TVs and gaming systems for vendors such as Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung.
By 2023, Wi-Fi 6 will be the predominant Wi-Fi standard in both the consumer and enterprise markets, and a third of the 17 billion estimated home devices sold will be Wi-Fi 6, according to industry forecasts. Additionally, estimates show that the number of public Wi-Fi 6 hotspots will grow 13-fold between 2020 and 2023.
Wi-Fi 6 improvements and adoption drivers
Capable of more than doubling Wi-Fi 5 speeds, as well as efficiently supporting twice as many devices, Wi-Fi 6 technology has been hailed as ushering in a new era for Wi-Fi connectivity. The new features are designed to better handle different types of traffic simultaneously from multiple users, improving network capacity as well as coverage for overlapping networks and dense environments. Additional enhancements include improved security, power efficiency and battery life.
These features will solve many challenges created by the ever-expanding home network, especially since this is the first major improvement to the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band in about a decade. Think about how much the home network has changed in that time, especially since consumers now rely on home connectivity more than ever, not only for entertainment but also for work and school.
The average US household served by Plume has 14.5 connected devices. Already, at least one-fifth of consumers have smart home devices like thermostats and surveillance cameras – and more people are embracing the smart home trend. By 2023, smart device shipments are projected to grow to 1.4 billion, a 71% increase from 2019.
The proliferation of smart devices is not the only contributor to the growing congestion of the home network. Consumers are also adopting immersive experiences such as virtual reality gaming and using bandwidth-hungry applications such as 4K video streaming and video conferencing. Wi-Fi 6 solves some of the congestion issues—but it also creates new challenges.
Intelligent home network management key for CSPs
While the new Wi-Fi capabilities will drastically improve the user experience, they create complexities that CSPs will need to mitigate. Simple controls cannot satisfy the requirements of these evolved home ecosystems, and Wi-Fi 6 is only as good as the system controlling it.
It's a misconception that Wi-Fi 6 will entail less management – in fact, maximizing the technology's full potential will require more intelligent advanced management and optimization than previous Wi-Fi generations.
An intelligent management approach with centralized controls enables CSPs to maintain the Quality of Experience (QoE) for their customers. Sophisticated controls can provide the coordination and optimization that will become especially critical as smart home adoption picks up the pace, putting further pressure on home network connectivity and performance.
Ideally, the centralized controls should be located in the cloud, enabling CSPs to harness the combined power of the cloud and artificial intelligence. AI-driven solutions ensure that subscribers' home networks can support the exciting capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, while the cloud offers the memory and computing power that AI needs.
It will take a few years before Wi-Fi 6 becomes ubiquitous. But CSPs that want to lead the market and position themselves for growth can't wait for the technology to become fully developed or enter the mainstream. It's imperative to prepare for the thrilling possibilities of this technology now, anticipating the complexities while looking for ways to future-proof customer deployments, maintain QoE, and meet consumer demand.
— Bill McFarland, CTO, Plume