Our beloved Wi-Fi has aged pretty well from its inception back in the late '90s. We used to measure wireless LAN (WLAN) throughput in single digits. Now, true speeds in the hundreds of Mbps are common if the environmental factors are right.
Wireless speeds, however, are not the only factor to consider when we wonder where Wi-Fi is and where it's headed. Among the other facets to consider are total cost of ownership (TCO), hype versus real-world performance, what's happening in the client device space, and competing technologies in various use cases. All these factors are equally important, and each can help define the future of Wi-Fi.
1. TCO can be depressing
Back in the early days of 802.11, we bought access points (APs) and connected them to Ethernet switches when we deployed a wireless network. That was the extent of the money spend, except for whatever the vendor charged for support.
One of the less savory parts of Wi-Fi's evolution is how complex WLAN systems have become. Each piece in the system often has several associated costs, including hardware, support, licensing and even more licensing. Controllers, network management systems, authentication servers, device fingerprinting engines, analytics appliances and more have become commonplace as wireless systems become more component-heavy and, thus, more expensive. And when you think you've covered all the licensing requirements for all the building blocks, expect the vendor to add more.
As another example of Wi-Fi's evolution, a single Wi-Fi 6E AP today can have a higher list price than a 10-pack of APs from just a few years ago. And all the new complexity comes with no shortage of code bugs, leading to lots of support cases and increased hidden TCO in man-hours spent dealing with bugs. It is what it is, and there's no reason to think it will get any easier on our wallets going forward.
2. Wi-Fi performance constantly improving, right?
Yes, Wi-Fi has come a long way when it comes to realized performance. Radio technology evolution, better OSes and application development refinements all contribute to Wi-Fi feeling improved with each new generation, as measured by tools like speed tests.
But some curiosities come with promised performance improvements. We are getting to the point where any given IEEE 802.11 standard's top-end "supported" performance capabilities are never achieved.
APs and clients will never have hardware builds that enable the highest allowed performance for each latest standard in early product releases. Then, the next standard arrives and negates the need to develop toward the top end of the previous standard.
In reality, marketing is always ahead of real performance, and the hype factor that pervades 802.11 is still prevalent. Additionally, the last several 802.11 standards usually have several "optional" features that sound fantastic, but they never quite materialize in the real world. Again, expect this trend to continue as Wi-Fi 7 starts to generate buzz.
3. The state of the client device market
Despite the WLAN industry having a solid 20-plus years of maturity by now, we still have great disparity in client device capabilities. Whether it's supported security mechanisms, radio capabilities or explicit topology and protocol requirements, today's Wi-Fi client mix is a bit of a mess.
This is where the Wi-Fi Alliance arguably should have done a better job with its interoperability testing and various certification programs through the years. The chaos often breaks down this way: Things work great at home, but not so well in enterprise settings.
Unfortunately, there's no relief in sight for this headache as we look to the future of Wi-Fi.
4. New wireless spectrum
So far, you might be getting a cynical vibe about the future of Wi-Fi, as presented here. The reality for Wi-Fi often differs from marketing hype and what the standards promise -- and that can sound gloomy, even if it's true.
But one development that gives Wi-Fi a positive boost is the recent opening of new 6 GHz spectrum, where Wi-Fi 6E operates. Any and all additional frequency allotments for unlicensed use are a huge win.
This new spectrum space could be transformative to Wi-Fi by providing vast amounts of uncluttered radio frequency range for client devices. As a bonus, many of those optional performance features from earlier standards are required in Wi-Fi 6E. So, we might finally see a WLAN technology that lives up to its hype in the real world.
5. The 5G effect and other competing technologies
Wi-Fi isn't the only wireless game in town anymore. Wireless network administrators have long suffered the "no consistency among client capabilities" problem, where various vendors try to jam every device down the Wi-Fi network funnel -- whether it makes technical sense or not.
Now, we also have 5G, private 5G, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and IoT-specific technologies like Long-Range WAN to compete with Wi-Fi and remove some of the ill-fitting connected devices from the 802.11 mix. This is mostly good news for Wi-Fi, except where CTOs will have to decide to invest in the likes of CBRS or upgrade their legacy WLAN systems -- because the cost to do both in large environments could be exorbitant.
The 5G crowd likes to say its low-latency technology will make Wi-Fi obsolete. But reasonably priced dual technology systems would be a better choice for most enterprises, rather than choosing one or the other connection based on budget limitations.
Hopefully we see a settling of prices and culture in the industry that makes sense for vendors and customers when using the right wireless technology for a specific use case, rather than pitting technologies against each other.