5 factors shaping the future of Wi-Fi

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Our beloved Wi-Fi has aged pretty well since its inception in the late 90s. We used to measure Wireless LAN (WLAN) throughput in single digits. Now, true speeds on the order of hundreds of Mbps are common if the environmental factors are correct.

Wireless speeds, however, aren’t the only factor to consider when we’re wondering where Wi-Fi is and where it’s headed. Other facets to consider include total cost of ownership (TCO), hype vs. real-world performance, what’s happening in the client device space, and competing technologies in various use cases. All of these factors are equally important, and each can help define the future of Wi-Fi.

1. TCO can be depressing

In the early days of 802.11, we purchased access points (APs) and connections to Ethernet switches when we deployed a wireless network. That was the extent of the money spent, except for what the vendor charged for support.

One of the less savory parts of the evolution of Wi-Fi is the complexity of WLAN systems. Each element of the system often has several associated costs, including hardware, support, licenses, and even more licenses. Controllers, network management systems, authentication servers, device fingerprinting engines, analytics devices and many more have become commonplace as wireless systems become heavier in weight. components and, therefore, more expensive. And when you think you’ve covered all licensing requirements for all building blocks, expect the vendor to add more.

As another example of the evolution of Wi-Fi, a single Wi-Fi 6E access point today may have a higher list price than a 10-pack of access points a few years ago. sadness. And all the new complexity is not short of code bugs, leading to many support cases and an increase in the hidden total cost of ownership in man-hours spent fixing bugs. It is what it is, and there is no reason to think it will get any easier on our wallets in the future.

2. Wi-Fi performance is constantly improving, isn’t it?

Yes, Wi-Fi has come a long way when it comes to performance achieved. Evolution of radio technology, better operating systems and improvements in application development all contribute to the improved feel of Wi-Fi with each new generation, as measured by tools such as speed.

But some curiosities come with promised performance improvements. We’re getting to the point where the high-end “supported” performance capabilities of any given IEEE 802.11 standard are never achieved.

Access points and clients will never have hardware versions that enable the highest allowed performance for each latest standard in early product releases. Then the next standard comes along and negates the need to expand to the top end of the previous standard.

In reality, the marketing is still ahead of the actual performance, and the hype factor that permeates 802.11 is still prevalent. Also, the latest 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 Wi-Fi 7 is starting to generate buzz.

3. The state of the client device market

Although the WLAN industry is now over 20 years of maturity, we still have a great disparity in client device capabilities. From supported security mechanisms to radio capabilities to 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 over the years. Chaos often breaks down this way: things work great at home, but not so well in corporate 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 have a cynical vibe about the future of Wi-Fi, as presented here. The reality of Wi-Fi often differs from the marketing hype and what the standards promise – and that can sound grim, even if it’s true.

But one development that gives Wi-Fi a positive boost is the recent opening of the new 6 GHz spectrum, where Wi-Fi 6E works. All additional frequency allocations for unlicensed use is a huge win.

This new spectral space could transform Wi-Fi by providing vast amounts of uncluttered radio frequency range for client devices. As a bonus, many of these optional performance features from earlier standards are obligatory in WiFi 6E. So we might finally see WLAN technology living 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 from the problem of “client capability inconsistency”, where various vendors attempt to block every device in the Wi-Fi network funnel, whether it makes technical sense or nope.

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-suited connected devices from the 802.11 mix. . That’s generally good news for Wi-Fi, except when CTOs have to decide whether to invest in systems like CBRS or upgrade their old WLAN systems, because the cost to do both in large environments could be exorbitant.

The 5G crowd likes to say that its low latency technology will make Wi-Fi obsolete. But reasonably priced dual-tech systems would be a better bet for most businesses, rather than choosing either connection based on budget limitations.

Hopefully we’re seeing price and culture settlement 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 to each other.

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