With many of today’s students bringing an average of eight or nine devices to campus, it’s no surprise that the latest Educause survey shows nearly all students rate laptops and smartphones as very important to academic success. As mobility expectations and device densities continue their precipitous ascent, higher education institutions are now exploring infrastructure adjustments that will help them keep up. If you’re among those considering your options, here’s what you need to know about Wi-Fi 6.
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What is Wi-Fi 6?
Having anticipated today’s device realities, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) began working on the successor to 802.11ac in 2014. Originally dubbed 802.11ax, the standard is also now known as Wi-Fi 6. Access points (APs) built upon the Wi-Fi 6 standard are on the market and higher ed deployments are already underway.
Concurrently, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry association that owns the “Wi-Fi” trademark, began developing the accompanying certifications that ensure interoperability and security among mobile product manufacturers. Its Wi-Fi Certified 6 program is slated for availability in the third quarter of 2019, meaning your institution will likely see the first wave of certified Wi-Fi 6 devices on campus after winter break in the coming academic year.
How is Wi-Fi 6 different from 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)?
For higher education, what’s most exciting about Wi-Fi 6 is its focus on improving the efficiency of data exchange, saving on battery life and enhancing experiences for all clients, including in congested high-density environments such as lecture halls, auditoriums and sports facilities. Also, 802.11ax systems customize radio channel usage to the traffic offered by multiple client devices. This provides fundamentally new capabilities compared to previous wireless standards, which primarily addressed speed.
Several key Wi-Fi 6 capabilities make this possible. They are:
Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), particularly ideal for smaller packets such as voice applications and IoT that are latency sensitive, this technology permits multiple applications to transmit simultaneously – further reducing delays. With 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), devices must transmit data sequentially, creating bottlenecks as devices wait for their “turn.”
Enhanced multi-user multiple-input multiple-output (MU-MIMO), which is akin to turning a single-lane road into an 8-lane freeway. MU-MIMO was first introduced in Wi-Fi 5 as a “4-lane” highway. Similar to OFDMA, it’s another technology that provides multi-user capabilities, reducing latency for larger packet applications such as video and large files.
Target Wake Time (TWT), this capability helps reduce device energy consumption because APs schedule device data transmissions. This is useful for both client and IoT devices that are increasingly used on higher education campuses.
Up to 4x Throughput Increase in a dense environment for all clients, as compared to Wi-Fi 5, due to a variety of other standards advances.
Wi-Fi 6 solutions: What do you need to look for?
Much like all previous wireless standards, the specific features available in infrastructure solutions will vary depending upon the manufacturer. Some solutions are layering on advances that offer considerable benefits for higher education.
Features such as the following can help your organization reduce capital and operating costs, while boosting management efficiency, to meet technology budget targets and reach institutional sustainability goals.
• AI-Powered Optimization leverages machine learning to optimize the RF channels, bandwidth and power requirements for delivering consistent user experiences. The most innovative offerings also group Wi-Fi 6 capable devices onto available Wi-Fi 6 APs automatically. This ensures you can take full advantage of multi-user capabilities, such as OFDMA and MU-MIMO, while enabling you to economize by maintaining a mixed AP environment that includes Wi-Fi 6 in locations where high-density features matter the most.
• Smart Traffic Control applies deep packet inspection, allowing you to easily apply quality of service (QoS) policies based on traffic, user and device types. As a result, user experiences are more reliable with an accompanying reduction in help desk tickets.
• Intelligent Power Monitoring enables deploying Wi-Fi 6 while retaining your existing switching environment. Enabling all of the 802.11ax capabilities in an AP may generate device consumption demands of more than 30 watts of PoE per switch port. Should this occur prior to your switching refresh cycle, an infrastructure solution with intelligent power monitoring enables Wi-Fi 6 APs to dynamically deactivate features as needed, based on policies you set, while still allowing the AP to operate.
• Energy Efficiency via AI-enabled utilization monitoring. It puts Wi-Fi 6 APs into a deep sleep when demand ceases, such as overnight or on weekends in your lecture halls, and wakes them up when demand returns.
• Enhanced Authentication Security with WPA3, the successor to WPA2, and Enhanced Open, which preserves the convenience that open networks offer while reducing risks. Although the Wi-Fi 6 standard does not specify any new security features, innovative manufacturers are including these two new security protocols in their APs.
• Universal IoT connectivity integrates all three common connectivity protocols – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Zigbee – into Wi-Fi 6 APs. By deploying a single Wi-Fi network with all three types of IoT connectivity, your organization can reduce capital and operating expenditure associated with the exploding demand for IoT devices.
In short, not all Wi-Fi 6 infrastructures are created equal. Equipped with a solid understanding of the features you should expect from a robust, easily managed and future-proof solution, you can select the best option for delivering on the mobility expectations that set your institution apart from the rest.