You may have seen that the new iPad Pro has Wi-Fi 6E support. That caused a lot of my wireless friends to jump out and order one, as I expected. As I previously mentioned, 2023 is going to be a big year for Wi-Fi 6E. I was wrong about the 6E radio on the new iPhone but given the direction that Apple is going with the iPad Pro and probably the MacBook as well we’re in for a lot of fun. Why? Because Apple is changing their stance on how to configure 6GHz networks.
An SSID By Any Other Name
If you’ve ever set up wireless networks before you know there are some different suggestions about how to configure the SSIDs with multiple bands. One school of thought says that you need to combine both 2.4GHz and 5GHz in the same SSID and let the device figure out which one is the best to use. This is the way that I have mine set up at home.
However, if you do a quick Google search you’ll find a lot of other wisdom that suggests creating two different SSIDs that only work on a single band. The thought process here is that the device can’t distinguish between the different bands once it makes a decision so it will be stuck on one or the other. While that doesn’t sound like a bad idea it does have issues in practice. What if your device chooses 2.4GHz when you didn’t want it to? What if your device is stuck on 5GHz at the limit of the noise floor in your office and you want it to swap to the other band for better throughput instead of adding another AP?
There are several reasons to have more control over how the frequency band is chosen. Sadly, Apple has never allowed the device to choose the band when joining a network. The only way to influence that selection has been to create different networks, which leads to management issues and other challenges for devices that are unable to join one network or another. The management issues made the planning process rather challenging.
Now, with the advent of a device that has a Wi-Fi 6E radio in the 6GHz range, Apple has changed their thinking about how a network should operate. In a new support post, Apple now clarifies that the SSID names should not be different for the three different bands. There’s no other mention of what happens at a device level as far as band selection.
In a different tech support article, Apple describes what happens if you don’t give them the same name. If you join a 6GHz-only network on the new iPad Pro, the device will detect there is no corresponding 5GHz network and search for one from the same AP and let you join it as well. The article for this even mentions the ominous “limited compatibility”, even if the dialog box doesn’t. If you choose to join this split SSID setup there is another confirmation box that encourages you to go tweak your SSID settings to make the name the same on both networks. I’m not sure if that same prompt comes up for 2.4GHz networks too. Maybe I can borrow someone’s iPad to test it.
Disabling New Tech
Even though Apple has never allowed users to select the band that they want to use on an SSID there is a new feature for 6GHz that gives you the opportunity to work around any issues you have with this new band. In the settings for the SSID there is a toggle for “Wi-Fi 6E Mode” that allows you to disable 6GHz on that SSID until enabled again. This way you can use the recommended settings for the SSID per Apple but still disable the pieces that might be broken.
Interestingly, this toggle only appears for 6E networks according to the support article. There’s still no way to toggle between 2.4GHz and 5GHz. However, adding this support to the network settings should be easy to carry down into the other bands. Whether or not Apple does it is a much different matter. Also, the setting isn’t currently in MacOS Ventura. That could be because there isn’t a 6E radio available in a Mac yet and the setting might not show up until there’s a supported radio. Time will tell when Apple releases a MacBook with a built-in Wi-Fi 6E radio.
After months of professionals saying that Apple needs to release support for Wi-FI 6E it’s finally here. It also brings new capabilities from the software side to control how the 6E radios are used. Is it completely baked and foolproof? Of course not. Getting the radios into the iPad was the first step. By introducing them now with software for troubleshooting and configurations and following it up with a likely 6GHz MacBook and iMac lineup soon there will be plenty of time to work out the issues by the time the iPhone 15 gets support for Wi-Fi 6E. Apple is clearly defining their expectations for how an SSID should work so you have plenty of time to work through things or change your design documents before the explosion of Wi-Fi 6E clients arrives en masse in 2023.