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Under The Hood with Wi-Fi 6

If I had a nickel for every time I heard 5G, I would have left CES 2019 with far more money than I came with! It was plastered on gadgets and booths everywhere you looked, stealing away attention from a new generation of Wi-Fi starting to find its way into devices and networks.

Wi-Fi 6 has been built for today’s average person, who is becoming as much of a content creator (requiring high upload speeds) as a content consumer (needing download capabilities). While former generations have been designed with speed in mind, Wi-Fi 6 put capacity front and center. The new generation boasts higher data rates, increased network capacity, improved performance in congested areas and longer-lasting battery life in IoT devices.

It’s still pretty new, with a certification program from the WiFi Alliance not even coming until 3Q19, but there’s been a distinct lack of buzz compared to the fireworks around 5G and 10G. It’s a shame, because most people will be utilizing Wi-Fi 6 far more than they do 5G without even thinking about it.

“Most end consumers with wireless technology are not aware that 80% of calls go over Wi-Fi and 20% go over cellular,” Broadcom product manager Nitin Madan told CFX. “One way to think about this is that Wi-Fi is your communication channel of first resort and cellular is your last resort.”

It all comes down to how much time you’re spending indoors versus outdoors. If you’re at home or work, you’re most likely connected to a Wi-Fi network. Even when you head out, you could connect to a guest network at your local coffee shop or mall, leaving only the journey in between for cellular to handle.

So why don’t you hear about Wi-Fi 6? “4G” or “LTE” are always visible in the top corners of phone screens where all you see from Wi-Fi are the bars indicating how strong your connection is, Madan said. The latest and greatest Wi-Fi standards are integrated into phones and other devices as soon as they’re built and aren’t discussed after. People notice that things have improved, but won’t give it another thought until something goes awry. This is also the first time a Wi-Fi generation has been called by a single number, a move by the Wi-Fi Alliance to give users an easy-to-understand designation for the Wi-Fi supported by their device as well as the connection they have with a network. If people are able to call it by a name as catchy as 5G, conversation could begin to rise.

Any excitement over Wi-Fi 6 may not match the hype of 5G, but its backers are counting on those who see the benefits to build the buzz around it. It’ll start with phones as folks choose to upgrade every two to three years. Infrastructure will take longer, with equipment like routers being replaced far less frequently. “They don’t perceive a need because they don’t know that the router in their house is 10 years old and does not allow their phone to access all the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6,” Madan said.

That is slowly changing as people add more devices to their homes, requiring the implementation of advanced mesh systems to provide coverage from the basement to the attic. As those people make changes necessary to get better coverage, a few other players are also benefiting: cable companies and MVNOs.

It’s not just because consumers are willing to spend more money more frequently to have upgraded systems in their homes. Those systems provide greater coverage with more reliability, significantly driving down costs associated with repairs and service calls. “Someone would get a TV and put it in the basement and could not get it connected,” Madan said of his days working in the cable industry himself. “Just to pick up the phone would cost us $30.”

Enter Wi-Fi 6 in which telecom companies have fewer costs associated with customer support along with fewer complaints, and users see the upgrades they’re always craving. 5G may be in the spotlight now, but don’t forget about this next generation of Wi-Fi. It’s doing plenty of heavy lifting behind the scenes.

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