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Don’t let Wi-Fi 6E hype push customers off refresh cycles

Don’t let Wi-Fi 6E hype push customers off refresh cycles

The promise of Wi-Fi in the 6GHz band is undeniable, but experts agree that it’s rarely worth deviating from usual refresh cycle.

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Despite the inarguable advantages of operating Wi-Fi in the 6GHz frequency range, analysts say that the smart time to buy Wi-Fi 6E is whenever an organisation would ordinarily make an upgrade -- and not before.

Wi-Fi 6E is mostly identical to Wi-Fi 6, but the key difference is the 6E standard’s ability to take advantage of the 6GHz spectrum. It’s a great deal of new bandwidth, enabling larger channels and consequently higher data rates, as well as being a much less busy area of the spectrum compared to the heavily used 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

Enterprise-class Wi-Fi 6E access points are just starting to hit the market across the world. Aruba / Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) made it to market first, and competitors like Cisco are likely to be close behind. What this means is that the hype cycle has begun in earnest, with vendors playing up the 6E standard as a way of future-proofing for a coming flood of 6GHz-enabled devices.

The issue with buying 6E now, however, is that most of the devices are still fairly far off, and almost everything -- from printers to smartphones to IoT gadgets -- is designed to work on existing Wi-Fi frequencies.

“In terms of the hype around it, it’s still early,” said IDC research manager Brandon Butler. “We don’t have a lot of Wi-Fi 6E access points that are available on the market yet.”

Moreover, breaking a standard refresh cycle and opting for Wi-Fi 6E so early in its deployment life is unlikely to be cheap, according to Bill Menezes, a director analyst for Gartner Research.

“You don’t need to do out-of-cycle refreshes and pay a premium for these,” Menezes said. “Scale will drive the price point down … [but] what performance requirements do you really have where Wi-Fi 6E will make a meaningful difference?”

The answer to that is generally going to be “not much,” but there are potential cases where upgrading to 6E quickly could make sense. There are two main reasons why, and the first is the relatively clean spectrum in the 6GHz band, which could make sense for organisations concerned about multiple devices interfering with one another.

“So in a hospital, for instance, you have different classes and certain devices that need clean spectrum compared to the 5GHz, so the ability to have dedicated spectrum space for devices could be an advantage for 6E, and could push the adoption earlier,” said Butler.

The second reason centres on bandwidth. For applications that move large amounts of data, the standard offers more capacity than Wi-Fi 6, said said Mike Fratto, a senior research analyst with 451 Research. This includes devices such as cameras, printers, and wireless laptops that generate significant traffic. "For those kinds of use cases, it could make sense to do an upgrade early, at least in a targeted sense," he said.

This, according to Fratto, could mean small-scale content creators, engineering firms and organisations that handle a lot of streaming video via Wi-Fi.

But, in general, given the premium price and organisational overhead that moving early to Wi-Fi 6E entails, most companies won’t see much upside to it. Plus, currently the overwhelming majority of Wi-Fi endpoints don't support the 6GHz spectrum, so there’s little reason to overreach.

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