From its earliest days, the Wi-Fi industry has had a kind of frontier mentality when it came to managing unlicensed airspace: "Let device makers do as they please," the thinking went, "and may the best solutions win." This commitment to solving problems at the device level has served Wi-Fi well. Today though, a new generation of demanding applications requires more consistent, deterministic wireless performance. The industry has responded with Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6E brings a huge capacity boost and, for the first time, third-party coordination of devices sharing unlicensed airspace. With its new software management layer, Wi-Fi 6E lets enterprises use Wi-Fi in ways that weren't possible before, without sacrificing the flexibility that makes Wi-Fi great. And it's about to upend ideas of what Wi-Fi can do and where it's going next.
Envisioning a New Kind of Wi-Fi
Quick refresher: Wi-Fi 6E brings a huge new tranche of spectrum in the 6GHz frequency band, effectively tripling the spectral capacity available for unlicensed devices. Suddenly, Wi-Fi can be a viable option for demanding applications like indoor mesh connectivity and reliable video streaming. But there's one potential hiccup: the incumbents already using this spectrum for point-to-point microwave services at thousands of locations across the United States.
To protect incumbent applications, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has commissioned the establishment of software-based spectrum sharing frameworks called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) systems. Under this model, AFC providers manage wireless devices authorized to operate in a certain location and frequency. Standard Power Wi-Fi access points (APs) will register with the AFC service, which will (on a daily basis) determine the appropriate power levels and frequencies devices can use at that location to protect incumbent applications. This will allow Wi-Fi devices to make the most of new 6GHz spectrum and operate at higher power levels indoors and out.
If this software-based spectrum-sharing sounds familiar, that's because it's analogous to the approach used by Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in private 4G/5G networks. But this is the first time this concept – or any kind of software coordinated spectrum management – has been applied to Wi-Fi. Vendors and their customers will have to get used to external coordination of Wi-Fi. But by doing so, they'll be able to support emerging applications in areas like smart factories, robotic automation, autonomous drones, and many others that current Wi-Fi networks can't support.
So, how will the Wi-Fi 6E story play out in the coming years? In the short term, look for a new generation of better-performing Wi-Fi networks. When APs can operate at higher power levels and use more spectrum – without disrupting incumbent applications – enterprises can achieve better performance with fewer APs. Major OEMs have already secured FCC approval for new Wi-Fi 6E and AFC technologies, and networking vendors will make products available starting in early 2023.
Longer term, expect AFC to begin bringing some order to the more chaotic environment that's historically prevailed in unlicensed airspace. Vendors will be able to bring a level of guaranteed quality and access that's never been possible with Wi-Fi before. This means Wi-Fi can become a major player in emerging Industry 4.0, IoT, and other new enterprise applications.
Eventually, we can envision a model where management mechanisms for unlicensed Wi-Fi, Private 5G, and even licensed spectrum converge. Enterprises could have a menu of wireless access options operating over different frequency bands, with the flexibility to use the best technology for every application, in any location.
Weighing AFC Options
If you're among those developing new Wi-Fi 6E solutions, be sure to think through the implications of this new software-driven management model. The AFC you choose will play a key role in determining the kinds of advanced applications you support and the quality your solutions can reliably deliver. Look for partners who:
- Recognize the importance of AFC in enabling high-performance, ultra-reliable Wi-Fi connectivity;
- Understand the intricacies of software-driven spectrum sharing and have proven experience delivering it at scale, such as with CBRS; and
- Provide highly scalable, responsive, fully supported AFC cloud services.
And for enterprises contemplating next-generation wireless options? Just make sure you're working with vendors focused on your applications and business – not partisans for a particular technology. As long as you do, you can have the best of both worlds: the freedom and independence that's made Wi-Fi king of wireless, with new airspace management capabilities to support the applications of the future.
— Kurt Schaubach, CTO, Federated Wireless