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.

When Will You Need Wi-Fi 6E at Home?

The pandemic has really done a number on most of our office environments. For some, we went from being in a corporate enterprise with desks and coffee makers to being at home with a slightly different desk and perhaps a slightly better coffee maker. However, one thing that didn’t improve was our home network.

For the most part, the home network has been operating on a scale radically different from those of the average corporate environment. Taking away the discrepancies in Internet speed for a moment you would have a hard time arguing that most home wireless gear is as good or better than the equivalent enterprise solution. Most of us end up buying our equipment from the local big box store and are likely shopping as much on price as we are on features. As long as it supports our phones, gaming consoles, and the streaming box we picked up we’re happy. We don’t need QoS or rogue detection.

However, we now live in a world where the enterprise is our home. We live at work as much as we work where we live. Extended hours means we typically work past 5:00 pm or start earlier than 8:00 or 9:00. It means that we’re usually sending emails into the night or picking up that project to crack a hard problem when we can’t sleep. Why is that important? Well, one of the arguments for having separate enterprise and home networks for years was the usage cycle.

To your typical manager type in an organization, work is work and home is home and n’er the twain shall meet, unless they need you to work late. Need someone to jump on a Zoom call during dinner to solve an issue? Want someone to upload a video before bed? Those are reasonable requests. Mind if my home wireless network also supports the kids watching Netflix or playing Call of Duty? That’s a step too far!

The problem with enterprise networking gear is that it is focused on supporting the enterprise role. And having that gear available to serve a consumer role, even when our consumer office is also our enterprise office, make management types break out in hives.

Technology Marches In Place

Okay, so we know that no one wants to shell out money for good gear. I don’t want to pay for it out of my pocket. The company doesn’t want to pay for something that might accidentally be used to do something fun. So where does that leave the people that make enterprise wireless access points?

I’ll admit I’m a horrible reference to my friends when they ask me what kind of stuff to buy. I tend to get way too deep into things like coverage pattens and device types when I start asking what they want their network to look like. The answer they’re usually looking for is easy, cheap, and simple. I get way too involved in figuring out their needs as if they were an enterprise customer. So I know that most people don’t need band steering or MIMO support in the house. But I still ask the questions as if it were a warehouse or campus building.

Which is why I’m really starting to question how the planned rollout of technologies like Wi-Fi 6E is going to happen in the current environment. I’ll buy that Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is going to happen as soon as it’s supported by a mainstream consumer device or three. But elevating to the 6 GHz range is an entirely different solution looking for a problem. Right now, the costs of 6 GHz radios combined with the operating environment are going to slow adoption of Wi-Fi 6E drastically.

Home Is Where the Wi-Fi Connects

How hostile is the wireless environment in your house? Aside from the odd microwave, probably not too bad. Some of the smart utility services may be operating on a separate network for things like smart electric meters or whole-home DVR setups. Odds are much better that you’re probably in a nice clean radio island. You don’t have to worry about neighboring businesses monopolizing the air space. You don’t have to contend with an old scanner that has to operate on 802.11g speeds in an entirely separate network to prevent everything from slowing down drastically.

If your home is running just fine on a combination of 2.4 GHz for older devices or IoT setups and 5 GHz for modern devices like phones and laptops, what is the advantage of upgrading to 6 GHz? Let’s toss out the hardware argument right now. If you’re running on 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) Wave 2 hardware, you’re not upgrading any time soon. Your APs are new enough to not need a refresh. If you’re on something older, like Wi-Fi 5 Wave 1 or even 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4), you are going to look at upgrading soon to get some new features or better speeds now that everyone in your house is online and gobbling up bandwidth. Let’s say that you’ve even persuaded the boss to shell out some cash to help with your upgrade. Which AP will you pick?

Will you pick the current technology that has all the features you need in Wi-Fi 6? Or will you pay more for an AP with a feature set that you can’t even use yet? It’s a silly question that will probably answer itself. You pay for what you can use and you don’t try and break the boss’s bank. That means the likelihood of Wi-Fi 6E adoption is going to go down quickly if the new remote office has no need of the technology.

Does it mean that Wi-Fi 6E is dead in the water? Not really. What it does mean is that Wi-Fi 6E needs to find a compelling use case to drive adoption. This is a lesson that needs to be learned from other protocols like IPv6. If you can’t convince people to move to the new thing, they’re going to stay on the old thing as long as they can because it’s cheaper and more familiar. So you need to create a new device that is 6 GHz only. Or make 6 GHz super fast for things like media transfers. Or maybe even require it for certain content types. That’s how you’re going to drive adoption everywhere. And if you don’t you’re likely going to be relegated to the same junk pile as WiMAX and ATM LANE.


Tom’s Take

Wi-Fi 6E is the great solution for a problem that is around the corner. It has lots of available bandwidth and spectrum and is relatively free from interference. It’s also free from the need to adopt it right away. As we’re trying to drive people toward Wi-Fi 6 11ax infrastructure, we’re not going to be able to make them jump to both at once without a killer app or corner case requirement. Wi-Fi 6E is always going to be more expensive because of hardware and R&D costs. And given the chance, people will always vote with their wallet provided their basic needs are met.