Wi-Fi 6: What to Do Now

By C.J Mathias / Farpoint Group

Now that you’re at least beginning to deploy Wi-Fi 6, it’s important to remember that success with Wi-Fi – success being defined as a happy, productive user base – depends upon the overall success of the network itself, and that network is a system with a large number of interconnected and interdependent moving parts. While one-size-fits-all is never going to be a practical approach to networking, we’ve found with the advent of Wi-Fi 6 that a number of elements are universally common. So here’s Farpoint Group’s checklist for the most important steps to take as your Wi-Fi 6 rollout proceeds.

  • AP density – We’ve advocated for less distance between APs as a primary deployment strategy for almost two decades, based on the simple observation that, for almost all applications, capacity is often more important than coverage. Thanks to advances in enterprise-class Wi-Fi system solutions, it’s easy today to optimize channel assignments, transmit power levels, and other key variables automatically, with no action required on the part of operations staffs. And it’s similarly easy to grow and adapt the network as requirements evolve, as these always do. Even in traditionally less-demanding applications like warehousing, distribution, and logistics, traffic volumes always increase, and new requirements like those related to robotics and video surveillance imply that greater AP density should be anticipated in almost every case today.
  • Channel bandwidths – The advent of 40-, 80-, and even 160-MHz. Wi-Fi channels has led to the temptation to succumb to the “more is better” philosophy that has motivated the majority of network upgrades over the years. But it’s important to think about application requirements here: gigabit-plus-class service is seldom important for any given user. While bi-directional MU-MIMO can be quite effective in optimizing channel utilization at any given moment in time – that utilization being analogous to a perishable commodity in heavily-loaded networks – a larger number of smaller channels can yield better results in many cases, especially with new Wi-Fi 6 technologies like OFDMA and BSS Coloring at work.
  • Bandsteering – Given the vast amount of spectrum available at 5 GHz. (and with even more at 6 GHz. arriving shortly), and the broad utilization of 5 GHz. in Wi-Fi 4, 5, and 6, it’s hard to believe that the advent of 5 GHz. in 802.11a twenty years ago was met with extreme skepticism as to its value and even viability. No matter – 5 GHz. works great and has left 2.4 GHz. in the dust. Well, almost – we still use 20 MHz. channels at 2.4 GHz. for lower-demand applications, sometimes dedicating a channel to a single application alone. In most cases, though, we recommend that that spectral-management capabilities of a given system solution be applied to making the decision as to what traffic and what users go where at any given moment in time.
  • The wired network – While wireless meshes continue to grow in popularity, most APs still require wired backhaul – and, of course, wired power. There’s no doubt that the advent of Wi-Fi 6 is motivating upgrades to the wired plant to provision both higher bandwidth and greater electrical power, with replacement of both the wire itself and network switches often on the to-do list. These upgrades can, in most cases, proceed in a measured fashion; we routinely, for example, get gigabit speeds out of decades-old Cat-5. It might be a better strategy in many cases, then, to focus on the core network to make sure that any bottlenecks there are eliminated, and the same for external connections to the Internet. Regardless, being labor-intensive, the installation of new cabling can be expensive, but this work can be scheduled and budgeted so as to fit into any operational plan.
  • Management and assurance – Of all of the actions discussed here, we consider management, assurance (dynamic and continuous functional verification, including security), and analytics to be the areas of greatest opportunity and, ultimately, benefit. Interestingly, these capabilities are now also the key points of differentiation in system-vendor offerings, and we almost always specify requirements here at the top of request for proposal (RFP) documents. Why? Because these above-the-standard capabilities are the keys to simplifying operations, minimizing operational expense and, again, assuring a happy and productive user base. Of increasing importance here are automated operations and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in maximizing operations-staff productivity.

If we tie all of the above together, it’s easy to see where the Wi-Fi network of the next few years is going. Imagine receiving a message like this from a network management system: “I’ve scheduled the installation of a new 6-GHz. AP above Sandra’s office for Tuesday at 5:00 PM.” And, of course, all associated adjustments to channel assignments, traffic policies, and on and on are made automatically and optimally.

And if the primary objective in a given venue is simply more throughput, well, then yes – we have that, too.

Craig Mathias is the founder of Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing is wireless and mobile.