The next generation of Wi-Fi is on the horizon, with big implications for K–12 education. It’s designed for high-density environments — such as auditoriums, gyms or large classrooms — but can put a strain on current networks. Here’s what you need to know.
Wi-Fi 6 Is Designed for High-Density Environments
Wi-Fi 6, the next-generation wireless standard, isn’t just a step up in speed from Wi-Fi 5. The goal is to boost performance in densely populated areas, but that only works when both clients and access points play by Wi-Fi 6 rules.
The nomenclature reflects the Wi-Fi Alliance’s attempt to add clarity to the IEEE numbering scheme (such as 802.11n) by assigning sequential names to the protocols. Each new number builds on the one before, with Wi-Fi 6 (based on IEEE 802.11ax) focused on high-density environments such as classrooms and stadiums. Wi-Fi 5, the IEEE 802.11ac standard approved in 2013, is now widely deployed and should coexist well with Wi-Fi 6 as it debuts.
Compatible Products Are Appearing in the Market
The standard isn’t yet fully approved, but every major Wi-Fi infrastructure vendor has announced products over the past 12 months, so expect to see more activity. On the client side, the Samsung Galaxy S10 cellphone is among the first to support it. Laptops based on Intel Ice Lake and Comet Lake processors should be firmware-upgradeable to support 802.11ax.
Wi-Fi 6 Improves on Both Performance and Security
Older devices should work fine on Wi-Fi 6 networks, but without new clients, you won’t see any advantage. The biggest jump will be in high-density spaces, but these features require Wi-Fi 6 clients and APs. As long as you have old hardware on the airwaves, you’ll see limited or no benefits.
Wi-Fi 6 does require the new WPA3 encryption and authentication protocol (the latest version of Wi-Fi Protected Access), which gives stronger security to any client with modern firmware.
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Complement Each Other
Wi-Fi 6, with higher speed and density, extends the usefulness of Wi-Fi as a faster, better and cheaper alternative to cellular data, even the superhigh speeds proposed for 5G networks. This reflects both technical advances and a strong consumer preference for wireless.
Wi-Fi 6 also opens up more frequencies, subject to regulatory approval in each country. This means you should keep planning for wireless support. Users will get a better experience with properly engineered and deployed Wi-Fi 6 than with 5G. That said, the two are complementary, with Wi-Fi ideal for indoor areas, and 5G the standard of choice for outdoor networks.
Design a Phased-In Approach to Wi-Fi 6 Upgrades
A full Wi-Fi 6 deployment will mean swapping out APs, clients and network infrastructure, because a 1-gigabit link isn’t fast enough to feed a high-speed, high-density Wi-Fi 6 AP. Instead, take a gradual upgrade path: Make sure that anything you add to you networks now can support Wi-Fi 6, and then look at how you can accommodate faster AP-to-network speeds in the next upgrade cycle.