Wi-Fi 6 creates new IoT opportunities and new testing requirements

Stephen Douglas of Spirent Communications

Think back to the beginning of 2020, and try to imagine what your pre-pandemic self might have listed as the essential tools you need to live and work productively. Now think about the new additions that would be on that list today: a mask, certainly, and perhaps an ever-ready bottle of hand sanitizer, but there are probably some more technical items on that list as well.

Have you upgraded your home Wi-Fi, downloaded new software, purchased a new mobile device or connected part of your home to the internet? Asks Stephen Douglas, head of 5G Strategy, Spirent Communications. Has your company added a VPN or enterprise-grade Wi-Fi that you can access from home?

Lifestyle changes in 2020

Wi-Fi has been foundational to the lifestyle changes many people have made this year, and for enterprises the story has been similar. The pandemic coincided with the commercialisation of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), with its improved capacity, latency and efficiency. The pandemic also caused delays in the ratification of 5G Release 16 and 17, as 3GPP working groups were forced to acknowledge that they could not move as quickly without face-to-face interaction. Taken together, these two developments mean that companies are leaning more heavily on Wi-Fi 6 for IoT deployments.

In September 2020, Gartner estimated that installed Internet of Things (IoT) endpoints for manufacturing and natural resources will grow from 331.5 million units in 2018 to 1.9 billion units by 2028. On the manufacturing front particularly, Wi-Fi 6 is seen as a connectivity workhorse, potentially capable of handling many IoT use cases. UK aerospace component maker Mettis recently completed a Wi-Fi 6 trial and decided to deploy the technology across its factory floor to support thousands of connected sensors.

Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) , allowing simultaneous data transmission to or from one or more users enabling better utilisation especially in ultra-high-density environments. Wi-Fi 6 also employs multi-user multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO) in both the uplink and the downlink, so the upstream data traffic generated by IoT applications moves faster. Finally, Wi-Fi 6 uses robust security and authentication capabilities that were previously the differentiator for using cellular networks.

No substitute for 5G

However, Wi-Fi 6 will not be a substitute for 5G. At Spirent we saw the device maker testing market accelerate over the past year as manufacturers rushed the launch of first-gen smartphones and user equipment. The next step will be enterprise deployments, and many large-scale IoT deployments are likely to leverage both 5G and Wi-Fi 6. For example, companies may use Wi-Fi 6 indoors and use 5G to connect to nearby edge compute resources to access cloud-based applications.

Or they may use Wi-Fi 6 for IT and back office support, cellular for the factory floor, and a short range protocol for sensors. Over time, look for Wi-Fi 6 to handle most non-mission critical applications, while 5G supports precision engineering, robotics and augmented reality. Standards bodies will be called upon to make the two technologies more interoperable.

As companies recognise the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, they are starting to treat enterprise LANs more like private cellular deployments, testing and simulating high-challenge propagation scenarios to ensure the desired network reliability. Service assurance is becoming an important part of enterprise Wi-Fi networks and companies are incorporating it into their planning processes.

Because of the pandemic, remote testing and process automation are more important than ever. Spirent has been able to give engineers remote access to labs, and in some cases has found that remote testing actually improves productivity because teams that might not have interacted before are now forced to collaborate online.

Like their at-home employees, companies are adding new technologies to their toolkits in order to adapt to the new normal. Their investments in Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will continue to pay off long after the current pandemic has passed.

The author is Stephen Douglas, head of 5G Strategy, Spirent Communications.

About the author

Stephen works for Spirent’s strategy organisation helping to define technical direction, new innovative solutions and market-leading disruptive technologies. Currently, Stephen leads Spirent’s strategic initiatives for 5G, IoT and Automotive. With over 20 years’ experience in telecommunications, Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next-generation technologies and has worked across the industry with service providers, start-ups and network equipment manufacturers, helping them drive innovation and transformation. Stephen is an ardent believer in connected technology and strives to challenge, blur and break down the silos that prevent innovation and business success.

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