May 16 2024

Wi-Fi 6E Upgrades Require Compatible Cabling

Higher education institutions are considering upgrading thousands of access points to Wi-Fi 6E, and cabling upgrades must be part of the planning.

As the data demands on college campuses increase, CTOs and IT departments everywhere are at a crossroads: Should they try to squeeze a few more years out of their current Wi-Fi 5 and 6 installations or start upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E? Such a change involves more than just swapping out access points. Most campuses are filled with CAT 5 and 5E cabling that will be needed to be upgraded to CAT 6A to handle increased speeds and to future-proof those installations for Wi-Fi 7 and beyond.

One of the biggest improvements brought by Wi-Fi 6E is the addition of the 6-gigahertz spectrum. It is far wider than the now-familiar 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums, allowing devices to communicate with APs via more channels without interference. Plus, according to Panduit, more networks can be deployed using channels in the 80-megahertz and 160MHz range, with high throughput even when many active clients access the Wi-Fi network.

Because of this wider spectrum, IT departments may want to plan for future spectrum partitioning, in which different users are given access to different networks, likely on different channels or even via multiple APs placed in the same location. In addition, because of the 6GHz spectrum’s higher frequency and shorter wavelengths, the distance between APs will need to be reduced for compatible devices to maintain speeds, depending on the configuration of the space. Finally, the three radios in Wi-Fi 6E APs will require Power over Ethernet.

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Wi-Fi 6E APs Need Multiple CAT 6A Cables

Because of these requirements, companies such as Panduit recommend CAT 6A cabling be deployed in buildings that are upgrading their APs to Wi-Fi 6E because it can maintain speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second over longer distances than CAT 6. In fact, at least two cables should be run to where each new AP will be located; four cables are ideal.

Why four cables? For more future-proofing. Two cables would handle two Wi-Fi 6E APs that are installed closer together than the old Wi-Fi 5 APs. The other two are there in reserve to handle whatever increased bandwidth Wi-Fi 7 or Wi-Fi 8 may require a few years from now.

Networking Modernization


The Decision to Upgrade Existing Cable Plants

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, given how much cable infrastructure is already installed in existing buildings. According to Cisco, it costs roughly 10 times more to install a cable in an existing building than it does to install that same cable in new construction.

In other words, it’s an easy call to lay down CAT 6A cabling in a new building, but it’s much more difficult to do so in existing structures. Cost is always a factor, even for large universities that have planned ahead and installed enough conduit overhead to accommodate new cabling.

The University of Michigan is one of those schools. In 2022, U-M was in the midst of upgrading over 15,000 APs to Wi-Fi 6E (Wi-Fi 6 for outdoor APs). Andrew Palms, the university’s executive director of IT infrastructure, knew that he and his department had to pick and choose which of those APs would get new CAT 6A cabling, and which would stay connected via the school’s 20-year-old CAT 5E cabling. He points to the residence halls as an example.

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“Our standard is that we have one Wi-Fi 6E AP for every two rooms. That’s denser than then we have in our offices, but that’s because the students just completely expect Wi-Fi,” he says.

However, not everyone needs that kind of bandwidth, at least not yet.

“We’re not going through a whole building at this point and saying, ‘OK, we’re just going to upgrade this whole building,’ because, at least for now, in those relatively predictable spaces, including all of the offices, we probably don’t need CAT 6A,” Palms says.

If the team sees performance issues, it can then put in CAT 6A.

Andrew Palms
Our standard is that we have one Wi-Fi 6E AP for every two rooms. That’s denser than then we have in our offices, but that’s because the students just completely expect Wi-Fi.”

Andrew Palms Executive Director of IT Infrastructure, University of Michigan

Prioritize Cabling Upgrades but Maintain Consistency

There are other hardware considerations, such as installing patch panels that can handle the temperature of CAT 6A, especially in an environment where Power over Ethernet is required for devices beyond simple APs. William Choe, who works with universities and corporate enterprises as vice president of product management for HPE Aruba Networking, likes to emphasize to clients that they need consistency within their facilities.

“You may prioritize different business units or organizations or remote facilities” for CAT 6A, he says, “but within a given location, customers will look to standardize and have a fairly uniform capability, not only with the cable plant but with the infrastructure and ultimately the service that they’re providing their constituents, whether those are guests, students, employees or contractors. It becomes operationally challenging to have disparate or differentiated capabilities in a given location.”

Choe sees the tide turning away from an “as needed” mentality when it comes to CAT 6A.

“Certainly, as we look at the dashboard, we see more and more people looking to budget and put in the resources and planning to upgrade cable plants,” he says.

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