Why 2023 is the Year of Wi-Fi 6E

If you’re like me, you chuckle every time someone tells you that next year is the year of whatever technology is going to be hot. Don’t believe me? Which year was the Year of VDI again? I know that writing the title of this post probably made you shake your head in amusement but I truly believe that we’ve hit the point of adoption of Wi-Fi 6E next year.

Device Support Blooms

There are rumors that the new iPhone 14 will adopt Wi-Fi 6E. There were the same rumors when the iPhone 13 was coming out and the iPhone rumor mill is always a mixed bag but I think we’re on track this time. Part of the reason for that is the advancements made in Wi-Fi 6 Release 2. The power management features for 6ER2 are something that should appeal to mobile device users, even if the name is confusing as can be.

Mobile phones don’t make a market. If they were the only driver for wireless adoption the Samsung handsets would have everyone on 6E by now. Instead, it’s the ecosystem. Apple putting a 6E radio in the iPhone wouldn’t be enough to tip the scales. It would take a concerted effort of adoption across the board, right? Well, what else does Apple have on deck that can drive the market?

The first thing is the rumored M2 iPad Pro. It’s expected to debut in October 2022 and feature upgrades aside from the CPU like wireless charging. One of the biggest features would be the inclusion of a Wi-Fi 6E radio as well to match the new iPhone. That would mean both of Apple’s mobile devices could enjoy the faster and less congested bandwidth of 6 GHz. The iPad would also be easier to build a new chip around compared to the relatively cramped space inside the iPhone. Give the professional nature of the iPad Pro one might expect an enterprise-grade feature like 6E support to help move some units.

The second thing is the looming M2 MacBook Pro. Note for this specific example I’m talking about the 14” and 16” models that would features the Pro and Max chips, not the 13” model running a base M2. Apple packed the M1 Pro and M1 Max models with new features last year, including more ports and a snazzy case redesign. What would drive people to adopt the new model so soon? How about faster connectivity? Given that people are already complaining that the M1 Pro has slow Wi-Fi Apple could really silence their armchair critics with a Wi-Fi 6E radio.

You may notice that I’m relying heavily on Apple here as my reasoning behind the projected growth of 6E in 2023. It’s not because I’m a fanboy. It’s because Apple is one of the only companies that controls their own ecosystem to the point of being able to add support for a technology across the board and drive adoption among their user base. Sure, we’ve had 6E radios from Samsung and Dell and many others for the past year or so. Did they drive the sales of 6E radios in the enterprise? Or even in home routers? I’d argue they haven’t. But Apple isn’t the only reason why.

Oldie But Goodie

The last reason that 2023 is going to be the year of Wi-Fi 6E is because of timing. Specifically I’m talking about the timing of a refresh cycle in the enterprise. The first Wi-Fi 6 APs started coming into the market in 2019. Early adopters jumped at the chance to have more bandwidth across the board. But those APs are getting old by the standards of tech. They may still pass traffic but users that are going back to the office are going to want more than standard connectivity. Especially if those users splurged for a new iPhone or iPad for Christmas or are looking for a new work laptop of the Macintosh variety.

Enterprises may not have been packed with users for the past couple of years but that doesn’t mean the tech stood still. Faster and better is always the mantra of the cutting edge company. The revisions in the new standards would make life easier for those trying to deploy new IoT sensors or deal with with congested buildings. If enterprise vendors adopt these new APs in the early part of the year it could even function as an incentive to get people back in the office instead of the slow insecure coffee shop around the corner.

One other little quirky thing comes from an report that Intel is looking to adopt Wi-Fi 7. It may just be the cynic in me talking but as soon as we start talking about a new technology on the horizon people start assuming that the “current” cutting edge tech is ready for adoption. It’s the same as people that caution you not to install a new operating system until after the first patch or service release. Considering that Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 is effectively Wi-Fi 6E Service Pack 1 I think the cynics in the audience are going to think that it’s time to adopt Wi-Fi 6E since it’s ready for action.

Tom’s Take

Technology for the sake of tech is always going to fail. You need drivers for adoption and usage. If cool tech won the day we’d be watching Betamax movies or HD-DVD instead of streaming on Netflix. Instead, the real winners are the technologies that get used. So far that hasn’t been Wi-Fi 6E for a variety of reasons. However, with the projections of releases coming soon from Apple I think we’re going to see a massive wave of adoption of Wi-Fi 6E in 2023. And if you’re reading this in late 2023 or beyond and it didn’t happen, just mentally change the title to whatever next year is and that will be the truth.

Wi-Fi 6 Release 2, Or Why Naming Conventions Suck

I just noticed that the Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new spec for Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of referring to technology by the standard, not by a catch term that serves as a way to trademark something, like Pentium. Anyway, this updated new standard for wireless communications was announced on January 5th at CES and seems to be an entry in the long line of embarrassing companies that forget to think ahead when naming things.

Standards Bodies Suck

Let’s look at what’s included in the new release for Wi-Fi 6. The first and likely biggest thing to crow about is uplink multi-user MIMO. This technology is designed to enhance performance and reduce latency for things like video conferencing and uploading data. Essentially, it creates multi-user MIMO for data headed back the other direction. When the standard was first announced in 2018 who knew we would have spent two years using Zoom for everything? This adds functionality to help alleviate congestion for applications that upload lots of data.

The second new feature is power management. This one is aimed primarily at IoT devices. The combination of broadcast target wake time (TWT), extended sleep time, and multi-user spatial multiplexing power save (SMPS) are all aimed at battery powered devices. While the notes say that it’s an enterprise feature I’d argue this is aimed at the legion of new devices that need to be put into deep sleep mode and told to wake up at periodic intervals to transmit data. That’s not a laptop. That’s a sensor.

Okay, so why are we getting these features now? I’d be willing to bet that these were the sacrificial items that were holding up the release of the original spec of 802.11ax. Standards bodies often find themselves in a pickle because they need to get the specifications out the door so manufacturers can start making gear. However, if there are holdups in the process it can delay time-to-market and force manufacturers to wait or take a gamble on the supported feature set. And if there is a particular feature that is being hotly debated it’s often dropped because of the argument or because it’s too complex to implement.

These features are what has been added to the new specification, which doesn’t appear to change the 802.11ax protocol name. And, of course, these features must be added to new hardware in order to be available, both in radios and client devices. So don’t expect to have the hot new Release 2 stuff in your hands just yet.

A Marketing Term By Any Other Name Stinks

Here’s where I’m just shaking my head and giggling to myself. Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 includes improvements for all three supported bands of 802.11ax – 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz. That means that Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 supersedes Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, which were both designed to denote 802.11ax in the original supported spectrums of 2.4 and 5GHz and then to the 6GHz spectrum when it was ratified by the FCC in the US.

Let’s all step back and realize that the plan to simplify the naming convention of the Wi-Fi alliance for marketing has failed spectacularly. In an effort to avoid confusing consumers by creating a naming convention that just counts up the Wi-Fi Alliance has committed the third biggest blunder. They forgot to leave room for expansion!

If you’re old enough you probably remember Windows 3.1. It was the biggest version of Windows up to that time. It was the GUI I cut my teeth on. Later, there were new features that were added, which meant that Microsoft created Windows 3.11, a minor release. There was also a network-enabled version, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which included still other features. Was Windows 3.11 just as good as Windows for Workgroups 3.11? Should I just wait for Windows 4.0?

Microsoft fixed this issue by naming the next version Windows 95, which created a bigger mess. Anyone that knows about Windows 95 releases know that the later ones had huge new improvements that made PCs easier to use. What was that version? No, not Windows 97 or whatever the year was. No, it was Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 (Win95OSR2). That was a mouthful for any tech support person at the time. And it showed why creating naming conventions around years was a dumb idea.

Now we find ourselves in the mess of having a naming convention that shows major releases of the protocol. Except what happens when we have a minor release? We can’t call it by the old name because people won’t be impressed that it contains new features. Can we add a decimal to the name? No, because that will mess up the clean marketing icons that have already been created. We can’t call it Wi-Fi 7 because that’s already been reserved for the next protocol version. Let’s just stick “release 2” on the end!

Just like with 802.11ac Wave 2, the Wi-Fi Alliance is backed into a corner. They can’t change what they’ve done to make things easier without making it more complicated. They can’t call it Wi-Fi 7 because there isn’t enough difference between Wi-Fi 6 and 6E to really make it matter. So they’re just adding Release 2 and hoping for the best. Which will be even more complicated when people have to start denoting support for 6GHz, which isn’t universal, with monikers like Wi-Fi 6E Release 2 or Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 Plus 6E Support. This can of worms is going to wiggle for a long time to come.

Tom’s Take

I sincerely hope that someone that advised the Wi-Fi Alliance back in 2018 told them that trying to simplify the naming convention was going to bite them in the ass. Trying to be cool and hip comes with the cost of not being able to differentiate between minor version releases. You trade simplicity for precision. And you mess up all those neat icons you built. Because no one is going to legitimately spend hours at Best Buy comparing the feature sets of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 6 Release 2. They’re going to buy what’s on sale or what looks the coolest and be done with it. All that hard work for nothing. Maybe the Wi-Fi Alliance will have it figured out by the time Wi-Fi 7.5 Release Brown comes out in 2025.