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Tipping The Wi Fi Scales

Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E or wait for Wi-Fi 7? Supply chain, performance factors may tilt the scales

Feb. 24, 2022
If you’re considering upgrading your legacy Wi-Fi network to 6E to support smart building applications, here are some reasons why it might be wise to hold off a bit longer.

I’ve personally deployed plenty of in-building Wi-Fi networks that, at the time, used the latest IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) standard. This standard was a major leap forward from previous iterations and it’s no surprise that many commercial properties are outfitted with this wireless technology to this day.

However, these Wi-Fi networks are beginning to grow long in the tooth. Perhaps not so much from a “does-it-do-the-job?” perspective, but more the fact that the wireless access points (APs) themselves are likely 3+ years old and ready for a refresh according to many IT hardware lifecycle policies. In addition to that, commercial building owners/operators are also trying to figure out whether their existing wireless network can handle one or more smart buildings projects—many of which require the addition of dozens to hundreds of bandwidth-intensive wireless IoT sensors.

For those shopping around for upgrade options, both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E standards have been ratified post Wi-Fi 5. Thus, for many, the logical upgrade path would be to replace their existing Wi-Fi 5 APs with the latest available technology on the market—Wi-Fi 6E. This would not only allow them to replace hardware that’s toward the end of its expected lifecycle, but also deliver a substantial performance boost for any wireless smart building IoT project.

While this line of thinking is sound, there are a few things to consider before committing to a Wi-Fi 6E upgrade in the next 12 to 18 months. For one, understand that while most enterprise-grade Wi-Fi manufacturers do indeed sell Wi-Fi 6E hardware, supply-chain constraints caused by the COIVD-19 pandemic have made this hardware extremely scarce. It will not be uncommon to hear stories of delayed Wi-Fi upgrades throughout 2022 due to a shortage of hardware.

If that’s the case, 2023 will be a more realistic timeframe for an upgrade to commence. However, by that time, another new Wi-Fi standard will be just around the corner. Wi-Fi 7 (IEEE 802.11be) is expected to offer major enhancements that IoT-heavy environments, including smart buildings, will be able to take advantage of. Without getting overly technical, here are the advancements we’re expecting to see with Wi-Fi 7.

  • Extremely High-Throughput (EHT) up to a theoretical rate of 46 Gbits/sec
  • Double the number of multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) spatial streams, compared to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, to support larger numbers of simultaneously connected Wi-Fi endpoints
  • Multi-band and multi-channel aggregation techniques
  • Support for Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), which is a set of standards used to help with the delivery of real-time streaming services such as voice and video.

While there are additional advantages of Wi-Fi 7, these four enhancements alone are all useful in smart building use-cases. For example, the ability to deploy high-definition or even ultra-high-definition surveillance cameras via Wi-Fi connectivity may require the types of speeds and spatial streams that only Wi-Fi 7 can deliver. In other cases, large numbers of IoT sensors can connect in high-device density areas with confidence that network speed and latency numbers will meet or exceed minimum requirements.

My recommendation: If you can wait, you should. Technology waits for no business. Thus, if the absolute need to upgrade a building is there—and sufficient hardware can be procured—then by all means, upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E. On the other hand, if you can hold off, hardware availability and significant Wi-Fi improvements will be significantly better starting in 2024.

About the Author

Andrew Froehlich | Contributor

As a highly regarded network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, Andrew Froehlich counts over two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Andrew is the founder and president of Colorado-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build-outs. He’s also the founder of an enterprise IT research and analysis firm, InfraMomentum. As the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT-related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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