Wi-Fi 6E Growing Pains For Apple

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.


Tom’s Take

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.

Monday Mobility Quick Thoughts

I’m getting ready for Mobility Field Day 8 later this week and there’s been a lot of effort making sure we’re ready to go. That means I’ve spent lots of time thinking about event planning instead of writing. So I wanted to share some quick thoughts with you ahead of this week as well as WLPC Europe next week.

  • I remain convinced than half of the objections that are raised by oversight organizations when it comes to adopting new technology come from the fact they got caught flat-footed and weren’t ready for it to be popular. Whether it’s the Wi-Fi 6E safety issue or the report earlier this year from the FAA about 5G and airports it just seems like organizations spend less time doing actual investigation and more time writing press releases about how they are ready to figure it all out yet.
  • I also remain cautiously optimistic that the new Apple devices rumored to be coming out later this year, namely the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro with M2 chips, will have Wi-Fi 6E support. Yes, the iPhone didn’t. It’s also a smaller device with less room to add new hardware. The iPad and MacBook have historically gotten new chips before the smaller mobile device does. If I’m wrong then I guess we’ll get to see if 6E is enough of a factor to get people to ditch their Apple device for a Google or Samsung one.
  • As we rely more and more on software to expand the capabilities of our hardware I think we’re going to see more and more companies working toward the model of hardware-as-a-service. As in you lease the equipment from them for a monthly payment and, in return, you get to have a base level of features that can be expanded in higher “tiers” of service. Expect some more on this idea in the near future with the launch of solutions like Nile.

Tom’s Take

Make sure you tune in for Mobility Field Day 8 and don’t forget to tell us what you think! Maybe by next year we’ll have lots of Wi-Fi 7 content to discuss.

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.

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.