Mark Carrel -

Industry grapples with new Wi-Fi naming conventions

What's in a name? As the industry gets accustomed to the WFA's new Wi-Fi naming conventions, networking pros discuss pros and cons -- and when to use Wi-Fi 6 vs. 802.11ax.

Since the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced its new Wi-Fi naming conventions in late 2018, IT pros' reactions have ranged from enthusiasm to frustration. Proponents say the new nomenclature streamlines unnecessarily complex technical jargon by identifying each generation of wireless technology with a single-digit, sequential number -- Wi-Fi 6 instead of 802.11ax, for example.

"As an IT guy, I like this," wrote Mike Muter, an IT manager, on Reddit. "Easier to explain to people."

But others question whether the original Wi-Fi naming conventions needed an upgrade. Wireless LAN (WLAN) architect Lee Badman called the move "fairly idiotic" -- describing it as an unnecessary branding exercise on the part of the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), rather than a useful technological distinction.

"The Wi-Fi Alliance has bigger fish to fry -- like actually getting products to be interoperable," Badman said. He added that the new nomenclature "grossly oversimplifies" wireless technology and will likely cause additional confusion among users. Badman also said he doesn't believe users found the original 802.11 names burdensome.

Wireless networking engineer Samuel Clements disagreed, arguing the new Wi-Fi naming conventions can play an important role in making the technology more accessible. Clements -- an engineer at a Cisco value-added reseller -- added that "IEEE-speak" can come off as elitist, alienating the masses. 

"We need to stop being closed-minded toward our users, and if there is anything we can do to help them have a more relevant conversation, that elevates everyone," Clements said, adding that the industry already accepts and relies on similar marketing shorthand, such as WPA (802.11i).

The Wi-Fi Alliance has bigger fish to fry -- like actually getting products to be interoperable.
Lee Badman WLAN architect

Longtime network engineer Ian Beyer agreed that IT engineers sometimes react negatively to new marketing terms without cause. He pointed out that the term "Wi-Fi" itself is a trademarked invention of the WFA and part of the organization's brand.

"It has become part of the vernacular pretty much anywhere in the world, which is what I would call an unequivocal success," he said.

What about Wave 2?

But Beyer added that he thinks the WFA missed the mark by declining to officially rename 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g -- presumably because these older technologies are mostly obsolete.

"Starting out of the gate with 'Wi-Fi 6' confused a lot of people," Beyer said. "I have frequently had to answer, 'Yes, there is a Wi-Fi 5 and a Wi-Fi 4, but not a Wi-Fi 1, 2 or 3.'"

Similarly, Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, said he thinks the new Wi-Fi naming conventions solve some problems while creating others.

"[The change] is probably a good idea in that it brings Wi-Fi into alignment with 5G. There was 1G through 5G with cellular, and there have been generations one through six with wireless LANs," Mathias said. "That is, if we ignore 802.11ad."

If and where .11ad and .11ay fit into the new nomenclature remains to be seen. Mathias speculated the WFA could treat them as subcategories under Wi-Fi 6.

"Also confusing is the fact that 'Wi-Fi 5' only applies to 5 Ghz band, and that the current generation of devices are Wi-Fi 4 on 2.4 GHz and Wi-Fi 5 on 5 GHz," Beyer added. "That doesn't even begin to address the whole 'Wave 2' thing. Throw in the confusion of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G -- and 5 GHz -- and it gets really messy."   

For some, such uncertainties call into question how effective and meaningful the new Wi-Fi naming conventions will prove in the long run.

"Wi-Fi isn't a linear progression. We have different versions for different purposes," developer Daniel Dunn commented in a Reddit discussion. "The Wi-Fi Alliance seems to think the new numbers are easier to keep track, but I'm not sure."

Wi-Fi 6 vs. 802.11ax -- which to use, and when?

Today, as the hotly anticipated high-efficiency wireless LAN standard inches toward ratification, network pros are still weighing whether to refer to it as 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6.

By their most technical definitions, however, the two terms aren't interchangeable. According to Beyer, 802.11ax refers to the WLAN standard -- from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) -- that defines how the technology works "in excruciating detail." A Wi-Fi 6 stamp indicates an interoperability certification -- from the WFA -- that a particular device has met certain mandatory feature and capability requirements.

But Beyer described this distinction as "overly pedantic" in all but the most technical settings, saying he often finds himself using .11ax with fellow WLAN professionals and Wi-Fi 6 with everyone else.

"Wi-Fi 6 is an easily chewable three syllables to the nine found in 'eight-oh-two-dot-eleven-ay-ex,' and so it rolls off the tongue a whole lot easier in a conversation with clients, in a podcast, a YouTube video or any other spoken medium," he said. "I use both depending on the context."

Mathias added that ultimately, neither term will provide much information or insight when it comes to particular products.

"Suppose you want to buy a 2019 Ford Edge, the midsize SUV," he said. "There are SE, SEL, Titanium and ST models, along with numerous other optional features and combinations of features."

The same holds true for wireless LAN products, he continued, Wi-Fi naming conventions notwithstanding. Enterprise users will ultimately need more information -- like peak speeds, feature sets and wave numbers -- before making purchasing decisions.

"What's in a name? My name is Craig," Mathias concluded. "There are lots of other Craigs in the world, but you couldn't lump us all together and assume we have the same set of characteristics."

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