The COVID-19 pandemic rages on, forcing companies to delay their return-to-office plans and permit employees to work remotely. Most offices are closed, and enterprises have expanded their networks to the home.
The idea of the home functioning as part of an enterprise network might sound daunting to some organizations. But the reality is many companies have been managing employees working from home (WFH) for nearly two years now. In those years, Wi-Fi has evolved to support hybrid work, according to Kevin Robinson, senior VP of marketing at Wi-Fi Alliance.
In 2021, 45% of all full-time employees in the U.S. continued to work from home, Gallup reported. Although WFH flourished because of the pandemic, most experts contend that the hybrid work model is here to stay, even after the pandemic subsides.
"Whether it's a full work-from-home [model] or more of a hybrid model, it's here to stay for the foreseeable future, even after things go back to normal," Robinson said.
How WFH developed
A hybrid work network involves the devices and technology used to facilitate the home workspace and connect to the larger enterprise network. As much of the workforce is remote, employees need adequate connectivity in the home now more than ever -- and most rely on Wi-Fi.
According to Robinson, prior to the pandemic, most users at home limited their data consumption to moderate tasks, like web browsing. Now, users need Wi-Fi for both personal and professional use in the home, with video making up a large share of data consumption.
Employees use cloud-based video conferencing tools to connect with each other remotely, while average Wi-Fi users are increasingly uploading videos to the internet. Both contribute to large amounts of data transmitting into the cloud.
In April 2020, ABI Research reported that Wi-Fi upload traffic had increased 80% since the early pandemic. Users found that their home networks were inadequate at providing efficient connectivity.
Enterprises needed to supply employees with more reliable Wi-Fi, but it's not as simple as it might seem. Instead of a few branch offices to manage, many enterprises must now manage hundreds or thousands of remote workers with home offices as part of the overall enterprise network. Some enterprises responded with reimbursement plans, while others prioritized certain employees based on their job title or workloads. Nevertheless, most enterprises needed to upgrade their existing Wi-Fi networks in addition to their employees'.
Employees who work from home need lower-latency networks -- which is essential for video and voice calls -- and an overall consistent network experience, Robinson said. A network must not only be able to transfer a substantial amount of data quickly to its devices, but it must also consider each device's needs and meet those needs accordingly, he added.
Several reasons may exist for poor wireless connectivity, such as bandwidth limitations, having too many devices connected to one network or being located far away from the network's router. However, another reason why users face wireless connectivity challenges could be because of the type of Wi-Fi used.
ABI Research reported that many users experienced connectivity problems at home because they used legacy Wi-Fi standards instead of the current generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 builds upon the capabilities of the previous standard, 802.11ac.
According to Robinson, Wi-Fi 6 can provide the necessary wireless capabilities needed to support a hybrid work model, and vendors are working to deliver enterprise Wi-Fi to the home.
"Players that are traditionally in the enterprise space are making their way into home connectivity, while players that are already in the home are evolving their product lines to ensure they're delivering more enterprise-type capabilities," he said.
How Wi-Fi 6 supports WFH
Wi-Fi 6 has experienced adoption much faster than previous generations of Wi-Fi, in part due to the pandemic but also because of the capabilities it can offer and the fact that it can deliver this experience to the home.
Robinson said that a mix of service providers, device manufacturers and enterprises are all finding ways to supply enterprise Wi-Fi to users in the home. Some organizations are providing employees with pre-configured networking gear that automatically connects to the enterprise network from remote locations. On the flip side, users who prefer to receive their Wi-Fi from service providers are having their providers disaggregate their personal data from enterprise data.
On Jan. 5, 2022, Wi-Fi Alliance revealed Wi-Fi 6 Release 2, an update to Wi-Fi 6 that is applicable to all Wi-Fi 6-suported bands. The new standard boosts performance and power management for devices and applications. The improved power capability serves to benefit "enterprise, industrial and Internet of Things (IoT) applications," Wi-Fi Alliance wrote in a press release.
As Wi-Fi connectivity becomes more enhanced, security should develop along with it. Network teams are protecting enterprise data by securing home networks as rigorously as enterprise networks. Teams are integrating technologies like Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 and other wireless security protocols in home networks.
Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 also enabled uplink multiuser multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO), which supports bandwidth-hungry efforts, like video conferencing and upload speeds, a capability that will support WFH and hybrid employees.
"Multiuser MIMO allows multiple devices to transmit simultaneously and increase the overall capacity of the network," Robinson said. "It's quadrupling capacity of the network because those can happen in unison."
He added that previous releases of Wi-Fi 6 included this capability as well but only in the downlink direction. Data patterns have now become more symmetrical, so the uplink MU-MIMO capability will work to support changing traffic patterns.
Wi-Fi EasyMesh is a Wi-Fi Alliance certification that enables devices to coordinate multiple access points (APs) in one location. Typically, one area of a home or office might receive a stronger connection because it's located closer to a router, while another area might receive a weaker signal because it's positioned farther away. Wi-Fi EasyMesh addresses this issue by evenly distributing connectivity to all APs, providing more consistent coverage.
With Wi-Fi EasyMesh, client devices can jump from one AP to another, connecting to the AP best suited for ideal connectivity. For example, devices might connect to a different AP as users move throughout their location or if the devices' current AP becomes overloaded with too much traffic.
Wi-Fi will continue to support home environments
As hybrid work continues to develop, Wi-Fi will also advance correspondingly, whether through new certifications or new generations of Wi-Fi.
"New capabilities for Wi-Fi 6 and additional technologies will serve to deliver the experience people need from Wi-Fi in the home, as they increasingly look to their home networks to perform like the enterprise networks they had prior to this new mode of work," Robinson said.