The growing expectations on Wi-Fi performance, coverage, security, support for new use cases, applications and devices require a step forward in the evolution of Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6 increases data rates and capacity, optimizes transmission in congested environments and extends support to new devices and use cases.
Wi-Fi is the world’s predominant wireless technology. It serves more users, connects more devices, and carries more traffic than all other wireless technologies combined. Today, we expect to find Wi-Fi connectivity in virtually all mobile devices and in most indoor environments.
Wi-Fi now has a nearly 100 percent attach rate in smartphones and laptops, and adoption is quickly expanding to innovative consumer electronic devices, Internet of Things (IoT), and vehicles. Users choose to use a Wi-Fi connection when one is available even if there is no obvious cost benefit to them, and as a result, a majority of wireless data traffic goes over Wi-Fi. Globally, Wi-Fi carries more than half of all data traffic. In Japan, Wi-Fi carries 83 percent of smartphone traffic and in Germany, Wi-Fi carries more than 87 percent of all smartphone traffic.
Success of WiFi
Wi-Fi access has become synonymous with broadband access. Nearly all broadband homes have one Wi-Fi access point (AP) or a mesh Wi-Fi network. Cities provide free public Wi-Fi to deliver broadband access to their citizens to bridge the digital divide and provide services. It is virtually impossible to find an airport or a hotel that does not offer Wi-Fi access to visitors and guests. Within the home, Wi-Fi is the preferred connectivity method that goes beyond broadband connectivity to smartphones and laptops: most new smart home devices utilize only Wi-Fi and depend on it for setup, authentication, and operation.
The success of Wi-Fi rests on a solid foundation established over the last 20 years, reinforced by its excellence at meeting the needs and expectations of users today, providing continuity with backwards compatibility, and propelled by a fast-paced and robust technological evolution.
Wi-Fi started as a disruptive technology that demonstrated the value and benefits of wireless Ethernet. As the first wireless access technology that used unlicensed spectrum on a wide scale, Wi-Fi has empowered individual users, enterprises, and service providers to deliver use cases and establish new business models in ways they could not with licensed spectrum. Most notably with hotspots, Wi-Fi so successfully established the concept of broadband access as a service or as an amenity that now many see this as a requirement. In turn, hotspots opened the way for stand-alone Wi-Fi service providers and enriched the offerings of existing enterprises.
Over the last two decades, Wi-Fi networks created a distributed connectivity fabric that enables Wi-Fi to carry the vast majority of wireless traffic and provide broadband connectivity where it is needed the most: in homes, inside buildings, and in dense outdoor areas. Wi-Fi has done this while making very efficient use of available unlicensed spectrum.
On the device side, Wi-Fi first unexpectedly presented the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model and showed smartphone users the potential of wireless broadband at a time when 3G cellular networks were not ready to match the Wi-Fi user experience. Furthermore, Wi-Fi gave users the power to choose to utilize unlicensed spectrum and take more direct control of their connectivity options. Wi-Fi’s ubiquity, with more than twenty billion cumulative devices shipped worldwide since 2000, opens almost endless possibilities for product innovation to support scenarios where users demand connectivity.
The increase in data consumption and in performance expectations in terms of speed, latency, reliability, and security has created new requirements for operators, businesses, consumer users, and vendors. There are nine billion Wi-Fi devices currently in use, demonstrating how successful Wi-Fi has been in meeting our growing connectivity needs. Growth continues, with three billion new devices shipping annually. Wi-Fi draws from a strong portfolio of capabilities supported by existing Wi-Fi Alliance certification programs: Wi-Fi CERTIFIED ac for the air interface, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3 for security, and Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Enhanced Open for protection in open networks.
The inherent strengths of Wi-Fi are critical to deliver the next generation of use cases and services, including those expected from 5G. Wi-Fi 6 & 5G are complementary technologies, both contributing their strengths to expand the richness and power of the overall wireless connectivity fabric. Wi-Fi will deliver mission critical connectivity and will continue to carry a bulk of the world’s data traffic as 5G networks are deployed. Wi-Fi also delivers both high performance and cost effectiveness to enable a wide range of new, disruptive business models and monetization opportunities. It also uses unlicensed spectrum with unparalleled efficiency, while effectively sharing spectrum resources among users and also with other technologies.
Next generation Wi-Fi CERTIFIED technologies preserve interoperability with legacy equipment and offer support for frequent refresh cycles; Wi-Fi networks can be fully upgraded while still allowing older devices (e.g. scanners) to operate on the network.
To meet the demands of multiple use cases, including those in the Internet of Things (IoT) and dense public spaces, Wi-Fi HaLow operates in low bands (900 MHz), Wi-Fi in the middle bands (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) and WiGig in the high bands (millimeter wave, 60 GHz). Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 will be capable of operating in 6 GHz when the band becomes available for unlicensed access.
Technologies such as Wi-Fi 6 and WiGig will provide greater capacity and speed, as well and low latency to support next generation use cases, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), multi-user gaming, Ultra High-Definition (Ultra HD) video, and multiparty video calls. Capacity and performance will be further enhanced once 6 GHz becomes available for unlicensed access.
Integration across multiple wireless access technologies enables Wi-Fi to deliver a powerful and seamless transition to cellular networks for operators, enterprises, and users when outside of Wi-Fi coverage areas. The end result is that Wi-Fi delivers exponential societal and financial benefits, and is crucial to everyday productivity. Wi-Fi’s massive global footprint contributes nearly $2 trillion in economic value annually in 2018, $3.47 trillion by 2023.
Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WiGig is used for connectivity in the 60 GHz band, and a robust portfolio of technologies provides additional options for connectivity, ease of access, applications and services, and network optimization. The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 certification program is currently available for products that support technology based on IEEE 802.11ax. In an era filled with multiple technologies and manufacturers working together to deliver next generation use cases to users, the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED seal of approval is the way to ensure products meet industry-agreed standards for interoperability, security, and other application specific protocols that provide the best Wi-Fi experience.
Despite its success, Wi-Fi is not standing still. Wi-Fi is ready to deliver the next generation connectivity experience, and to expand its reach to new users, new devices, and new use cases. Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, brings higher speed and capacity, lower latency, and more advanced traffic management.
These enhanced capabilities will strengthen Wi-Fi’s ability to support high traffic loads, hyperdense deployments, and latency-sensitive services with increased spectrum efficiency, range, reliability, and security. At the same time, WiGig is widening its capabilities in 60 GHz with the future introduction of IEEE 802.11ay and Wi-Fi HaLow is utilizing 900 MHz for low power.
Wi-Fi 6 will work in 2.4 and 5 GHz but is also expected to operate in the 6 GHz band. When available, 6 GHz will nearly double the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi today. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed making 5925-7125 MHz (6 GHz) band available for unlicensed use.
In Europe, the European Commission has mandated to study the allocation of the 5925-6425 MHz band for unlicensed access. The opening of the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi deployment will provide additional spectrum that Wi-Fi needs to accommodate the anticipated growth in traffic. Wi-Fi Alliance is committed to support this regulatory development globally.
The expansion of use cases in smart homes, enterprises, carrier access, smart cities, and IoT applications will continue to be fueled by Wi-Fi. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), immersive digital experiences, multiparty video and gaming applications, home and enterprise automation, and connected cars are some of the emerging use cases which Wi-Fi will empower in new ways. Wi-Fi already supports many next generation use cases expected from the 5G cellular world, well ahead of 5G commercial availability.
In addition, Wi-Fi 6 and WiGig will provide the improved performance and scalability that is needed to support massive adoption of next generation use cases well beyond those expected from 5G. Wi-Fi Alliance is confident Wi-Fi delivers the capacity, latency, affordability, spectrum efficiency, and security to satisfy wide-ranging demands for a new level of next generation connectivity. Many strengths in today’s Wi-Fi further pave the way towards next generation connectivity.
The combination of high performance and equipment affordability has played a major role in establishing the ubiquity and dominance of Wi-Fi. The marginal cost of adding Wi-Fi to a device or an AP that can support multiple users continues to decrease, yet the value of Wi-Fi connectivity to users is high. This has made it easy and inexpensive to add Wi-Fi support in new devices, and for these devices to operate in existing networks.
Wi-Fi’s affordable performance has also driven further adoption of Wi-Fi and expanded monetization opportunities. For instance, location-based marketing applications in a retail mall are effective because they can reach an enormous number of shoppers that already use Wi-Fi devices.
While Wi-Fi equipment is interoperable across vendors, a wide choice of options is available to meet the varying requirements of service providers, enterprises, venue owners, and end users, as reflected in the features and cost of equipment.
In the US, for example, Amazon sells APs with limited capabilities for less than $20, while the most advanced APs can be significantly more expensive. This flexibility ensures Wi-Fi delivers cost-effectiveness at the right level of performance for all types of deployments. The reliability, security, traffic and user management, and radio frequency (RF) planning needs in a stadium or large enterprise are different from those in a home network.
Across nearly all deployment scenarios, Wi-Fi consistently offers a compelling value proposition because of its relatively low equipment, installation, and operating costs whether used in residential, enterprise, or public networks. More importantly, per-bit costs are lower than cellular because of the combination of lower Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operational Expenditure (OPEX) with higher capacity.
Unlicensed spectrum operation
The global availability of spectrum bands for unlicensed access is an advantage for Wi-Fi as it secures the broadest addressable market, compared to cellular spectrum allocations which vary by country. No other access technology has a comparable reach and long history of coexistence with other technologies in unlicensed spectrum as Wi-Fi, making it well-equipped to coexist fairly with any future technologies that may also be introduced in unlicensed bands.
With Wi-Fi, enterprise, city and public entities are empowered to try out new deployment and business models, and to take control and ownership of the wireless infrastructure. Mobile and cable operators and other service providers also benefit financially from deploying Wi-Fi in unlicensed spectrum for hotspot deployments and roaming partnerships.
Wi-Fi has a distinct competency of operating in unlicensed spectrum; Wi-Fi is adept at understanding the unique benefits and challenges of unlicensed spectrum and managing interference in dense environments with many users. Because of Wi-Fi’s ability to accommodate many concurrent users on multiple networks in the same location, Wi-Fi has an exceptionally high spectrum utilization and frequency reuse that make it possible to transport 83 percent of global wireless traffic and 43 percent of global IP traffic using only 600 MHz in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, while efficiently sharing these bands with other technologies.
Ease of use
Effortless, transparent, and seamless connectivity makes Wi-Fi a technology that is loved by users worldwide – and a technology they continue to use even when also having unlimited cellular data plans with no financial incentive to use Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi also gives users the choice to turn connections on and off as they wish, and the ability to control the cost of the connection, if any, and avoid unexpected charges as may occur with cellular data.
With the digital transformation, Wi-Fi’s ease of use is extending to new use cases, such as smart homes and smart cities. Wi-Fi has quickly evolved to ensure ease of use in the setup, customization, and operation of smart home devices that is crucial to encourage adoption. Wi-Fi continues to evolve its capabilities in these application areas.
While increasing affordability has driven the wide deployment of Wi-Fi networks and availability in devices, Wi-Fi’s adoption is not primarily tied to cost savings, but to quality of experience (QoE). A recent study shows that Wi-Fi accounts for 88 percent of wireless data usage in the US with no pre-paid data plans, and 85 percent of those with a limited data plan with a data allowance. Among unlimited subscribers, Wi-Fi still accounts for 70 percent of wireless access, a very strong indication of connection preference.
Today, users can effortlessly connect to new and trusted networks: their devices can automatically select the best Wi-Fi network, authenticate the user, and ensure the network is secure. New capabilities will continue to offer additional security, data protection, and service support that improve the user experience and operator’s ability to manage Wi-Fi connectivity, further contributing to ease of use for both the Wi-Fi device user and Wi-Fi network provider.
It is now possible for nearly anyone to easily deploy a Wi-Fi network with the latest Wi-Fi CERTIFIED technologies at home, in the enterprise, or in public areas. And they can do so on their own, independent from a network operator or service provider. Wi-Fi enables individuals, enterprises, and public entities to deploy and operate their own networks, to have full control over the networks, and to optimize their networks for the services they support and the users that connect to them.
Self-deployed Wi-Fi networks do not require extensive RF planning, as there are many tools now available to optimize network topology and manage interference. Such networks can also be easily customized to enable differentiated services and support new business models.
Network owners have control over the Wi-Fi infrastructure: they can optimize network performance using analytics which provide data to meet their needs and goals. For instance, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) can use Wi-Fi to provide broadband connectivity to residential and small business users. Service aggregators, cities, or other public entities can share access to existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to provide basic connectivity and social or economic services.
The ability to deploy and operate a stand-alone Wi-Fi network encourages new uses of the technology like detecting location and activity of subscribers or motion context. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can acquire data through a Wi-Fi network for applications aimed at Wi-Fi users in the premises and for internal automation, monitoring, security and safety applications, and to also optimize network performance.
Backwards compatibility has always been a long-standing commitment of Wi-Fi as it evolves to improve performance and expand capabilities. Each new Wi-Fi CERTIFIED device or AP will to be able work with Wi-Fi equipment already in use. Wi-Fi’s legacy of interoperability makes it possible to fully upgrade a Wi-Fi network to the latest technology while still enabling earlier generation devices to operate on the network. Wi-Fi devices can be upgraded separately from the Wi-Fi infrastructure.
This commitment to interoperability provides investment protection for a Wi-Fi network because it can support frequent refresh cycles. New technologies can be integrated into the existing infrastructure without a full network upgrade, ensuring that Wi-Fi continues to deliver a good user experience with both new and legacy devices coexisting within the same band. As a result, Wi-Fi can address next generation use cases right away without requiring a network overhaul.
A steady transition to Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 devices will build upon the installed base of the prior generations and minimize the financial impact of technology upgrades.
Unlicensed spectrum bands
In mid-band spectrum today, Wi-Fi is deployed in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and has used both bands efficiently for nearly 20 years. The 6 GHz band may soon also become available for unlicensed access in the US, as well as in Europe and other countries, which will enable a major expansion for Wi-Fi performance and capacity.
Wi-Fi also operates in the 900 MHz band with Wi-Fi HaLow, which offers longer range and low-power connectivity for low-bandwidth IoT applications. Wi-Fi HaLow enables a variety of new power-efficient use cases in the smart home, connected car, and digital healthcare, as well as industrial, retail, agriculture, and smart city environments.
WiGig is ready for multi-gigabit speed deployments in the 60 GHz band – the millimeter wave region of the spectrum. Millimeter wave increases the opportunity for spectrum reuse and effective interference management.
The 60 GHz band is well suited to deliver multi-gigabit speeds and to serve highly concentrated, high-traffic users, and offload traffic from other access technologies with higher per-bit costs. Improvements coming with the IEEE 802.11ay specification will deliver even faster speeds and longer ranges in 60 GHz.
Wi-Fi’s performance and versatility already enables many advanced use cases that target both human users and IoT applications and services.
Next generation 5G connectivity
Wi-Fi is improving performance, scalability, and reliability to strengthen its support for next generation use cases. Wi-Fi 6 will satisfy an even broader range of next generation connectivity scenarios, including those envisioned for 5G. ABI research forecasts that Wi-Fi 6 global annual chipset shipments will exceed 1 billion by 2022, driven by an enormous growth in Wi-Fi-enabled devices, increased per-user traffic demand, greater number of users per AP, increased cellular offloading, higher density Wi-Fi deployments, growing use of outdoor Wi-Fi, heterogeneous device and traffic types, and a desire for more power and spectral efficiency.
Wi-Fi 6 elevates Wi-Fi to a higher level of performance and richer set of capabilities. Wi-Fi 6 further reinforces the ability of Wi-Fi to meet 5G requirements for stationary and nomadic connectivity across a wider set of deployment scenarios.
While Wi-Fi 6 is the most anticipated step in the evolution of Wi-Fi towards the next generation connectivity, WiGig and Wi-Fi HaLow also play a crucial and complementary role in Wi-Fi’s ability to address next generation connectivity scenarios, including many 5G scenarios, by expanding Wi-Fi to low bands and high bands.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) published a report that analyzes how Wi-Fi specifically meets the IMT-2020 requirements for:
- Area traffic capacity, i.e., densification
- User-experienced data rates
- Spectrum efficiency
- Connection density
Along the same lines, WiGig, with the upcoming IEEE 802.11ay standard, will be able to significantly boost the peak data rates in the 60 GHz (mmW) band in excess of 100 Gbps with the addition of 8×8 MIMO, and downlink MU-MIMO. Devices based on IEEE 802.11ay will not only increase the peak data rates, but also do so while reducing latency.
Keeping up with Wi-Fi security
Protection of Wi-Fi users and networks is a top priority. Since each market segment may have different security needs and abilities to support security solutions, Wi-Fi offers multiple tools that ensure each user and network are most effectively protected at the required level of security.
Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3 provides next generation security capabilities through WPA3-Personal, with Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE), and WPA3-Enterprise, using 192-bit encryption to protect networks with the tightest security requirements. WPA3 enables more robust authentication, delivers increased cryptographic strength for highly sensitive data markets, and maintains resiliency of mission critical networks.
Wi-Fi security is continually evolving to address new industry security threats associated with next generation connectivity scenarios.
Wi-Fi is the predominant wireless access technology today. It will continue to carry the bulk of the world’s data traffic, even with the deployment of 5G, because of its ubiquity in devices, extensive coverage, and inherent strengths which will be retained with the next generation of Wi-Fi. These strengths include:
- Affordable performance
- Unlicensed spectrum operation
- Ease of use
- Long-term compatibility
Leveraging its inherent strengths, commitment to security, and efficient operations in unlicensed bands, Wi-Fi today already supports many advanced next generation use cases. With the introduction of Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6, along with Wi-Fi CERTIFIED HaLow, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WiGig, and other Wi-Fi CERTIFIED programs including Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Vantage, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Easy Connect, and Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint, Wi-Fi will reinforce its ability to serve current and new use cases such as VR/AR, advanced video applications, and enterprise and smart home IoT services with scale, and to provide better throughput, lower latency, more advanced network management and optimization, and enhanced user access.
Wi-Fi’s installed base of more than nine billion devices enables delivery of next generation connectivity as part of a gradual transition, with backward compatibility ensuring support for legacy devices. Wi-Fi 6 will be introduced where needed, as an upgrade or expansion of current Wi-Fi networks, and it will not require the sizeable investment expected for 5G but will still provide many of same advancements in performance and capacity. Similarly, users will be able to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 devices as desired.
Wi-Fi’s ability to serve many next generation use cases today reduces the pressure and urgency for operators to deploy more expensive 5G networks in order for their customers to take advantage of new services. Operators can leverage nearly ubiquitous, high-performance Wi-Fi already deployed in many homes to deliver advanced applications and innovative services to users today. Customers can leverage their existing Wi-Fi mobile devices to experience these advanced use cases and available services.
Next generation connectivity will continue to require many technologies, including both Wi-Fi and 5G, further reinforcing their complementary nature. Neither, on their own, could address the full scope of connectivity needs in terms of capacity and coverage.
With the evolution to Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi will once again redefine what wireless connectivity means to users. Twenty years ago, Wi-Fi showed that broadband does not need wires. Next generation Wi-Fi will soon show users how wireless broadband can be transformative, and how it will be the main driver of digital transformation for both people and things.