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Pandemic sparks interest in Wi-Fi 6 adoption

As a result of the pandemic, a new hybrid work environment has emerged, and enterprises are looking to adopt new technologies -- Wi-Fi 6 included -- to manage it.

Research shows that Wi-Fi 6, the latest generation of wireless standards, is seeing wide adoption in enterprises across all industries.

The 2022 annual industry report from the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), as well as a recent network modernization study from Enterprise Strategy Group -- a division of TechTarget -- suggested mass adoption of Wi-Fi 6 by 2022.

In a press release, WBA CEO Tiago Rodrigues said 56% of 121 respondents reported feeling more confident about the decision to deploy Wi-Fi 6 than they were in 2020. The ability to engage with the 6 GHz spectrum, as well as the opportunity to use Wi-Fi 6 and 5G in tandem, are among the principal factors fueling the adoption of Wi-Fi 6, the WBA said.

According to ESG senior analyst Bob Laliberte, the pandemic sparked the development of a new hybrid work environment. He also said he believes the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic played a part in increasing enterprise interest in Wi-Fi 6 adoption. Wi-Fi supports multiple use cases, including hybrid work.

Pandemic sparks the implementation of new technologies

The pandemic prompted the deployment of new technologies, Wi-Fi 6 included. When stay-at-home orders required most employees to work remotely, network teams identified issues within their technologies.

For example, before the pandemic, enabling remote work was a challenge for most enterprises. This was less of an issue at a time when only 2% of employees worked remotely. However, that percentage skyrocketed to 70% by May 2020, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Most organizations were unprepared to provide connectivity to remote workers, revealing a major gap in enterprise networks.

Network teams looked to reform their infrastructures as issues came to light. With employees out of the office, it was easier for teams to make such changes and perform upgrades without disrupting the workforce, Laliberte said.

These changes became even more necessary as a new hybrid work model started to emerge. Laliberte added that, in addition to shining a light on the fragile areas of networks, the pandemic also changed what the office environment looked like.

"As the pandemic progressed, it became more clear that the new normal would be hybrid work," Laliberte said. "It wasn't just about [getting] the latest and greatest [technologies] into our existing environments. It was more about [adapting] our existing environments to the new model of work."

Wi-Fi 6 offers the ability to easily enable this work. For instance, video meetings have become a cornerstone of the hybrid work environment, whether employees are working in or out of the office. Devices in office environments typically connect via wired links. However, Laliberte said that Wi-Fi 6 can help enterprises support more video connections over wireless.

"I think there's certainly a case to be made for Wi-Fi 6 to support hybrid work," he said. "[Wi-Fi 6 can] enable organizations to actually run Wi-Fi to the desktop without needing that wired connection."

Wi-Fi 6 in enterprise networks

Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, improves upon the capabilities offered by previous wireless standards. Compared to Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac, Wi-Fi 6 delivers increased data capacity and enhanced connectivity.

The WBA report stated that 83% of organizations reported interest in adopting Wi-Fi 6. Respondents -- which included service providers, manufacturers and enterprises -- said they have either already established or plan to establish Wi-Fi 6 within their organization by the end of 2022.

In a separate study, ESG found that Wi-Fi is expected to see the biggest spending increase among all networking technology in 2021. 5G and SD-WAN remained among the top of planned investments, but enterprises are now looking to invest more in wireless technology than before.

Use cases for Wi-Fi 6, 6E

Wi-Fi 6's use of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) enables it to support multiple devices connected to a single access point (AP). OFDMA is what makes Wi-Fi 6 surpass Wi-Fi 5 in terms of connectivity and throughput. Wi-Fi 6 also provides more bandwidth and enhanced performance, Laliberte said.

While Wi-Fi 6 exceeds in these areas, it is still inadequate in terms of spectrum capacity, much like its predecessors. Laws restrict standard Wi-Fi 6 to the limited 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. When users connect several devices to one frequency, the bands can't accommodate all the devices because of the limited spectrum available. Wi-Fi slows down or disconnects from the device completely. The 6 GHz band addresses the spectrum constraints of Wi-Fi 6. In December 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the FCC approved 1,200 MHz of spectrum for Wi-Fi use, thus increasing the amount of available bandwidth.

Fundamentally, Wi-Fi 6E is the same as Wi-Fi 6 but employing the 6 GHz band. The increased bandwidth enables multiple devices to connect to one single, ultra-fast Wi-Fi network. Organizations with a slew of appliances can connect their devices to Wi-Fi 6E without the hassle of a poor wireless connection.

However, Wi-Fi 6E is still an early advancement. While the U.S. approved additional spectrum, countries such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand have yet to do so. Users also need to have Wi-Fi 6E routers and devices with Wi-Fi 6E capability to make use of Wi-Fi 6E, which few currently have. Nevertheless, organizations can still adopt standard Wi-Fi 6 for several purposes.

For example, the ESG study found that 44% of enterprises have worked to deliver corporate Wi-Fi to home offices as a direct result of the pandemic. Of that percentage, 26% said they would continue to deliver wireless connectivity to remote users indefinitely. Wi-Fi 6 APs simplify how network teams deliver wireless technology to remote users. Although this is possible with previous generations of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6 can streamline the process, further incentivizing Wi-Fi 6 adoption.

Enterprise use of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G

Wi-Fi is progressing into a globally pervasive technology, and standards need to evolve to support the myriad connected devices. As networks also evolve, teams must have infrastructures capable of supporting their systems in terms of connectivity, bandwidth and throughput.

One way enterprises could accomplish that support is with Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. While the two are separate, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are complementary, Laliberte said. Network teams have started to deploy Wi-Fi 6 and 5G as part of their overall strategy to boost coverage. The WBA reported this combination was one of the most compelling reasons why enterprises are looking to adopt Wi-Fi 6.

The amalgamation of these two technologies creates ultra-fast wireless connectivity. Several use cases for the consolidation of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G exist, including the support of high-powered networks such as IoT systems.

"Moving forward will be the relationship and the complementary nature between Wi-Fi and 5G, 6G technologies," Laliberte said. "Continuing to see that overlap and how that progresses will be really interesting."

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