WiFi to retain connectivity crown in 5G era as WiFi 6 looms

WiFi 6 or 802.11ax chipsets are forecast to break the 1 billion annual shipments barrier by 2022 just three years after the first commercial deployments expected for 2019, according to analyst firm ABI Research.

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Although it has taken several years to develop and ratify, market adoption of the standard is anticipated to be swifter than the rollout of 5G technologies. For example, while it took only a couple of years to ratify the first 5G standard, shipments of 5G enabled devices are expected to reach 1 billion six years after the first commercial launches.

Technology adoption of WiFi 6 will be driven predominantly by the smartphone market as it transitions away from 802.11ac beginning in 2019. However, significant adoption is not expected to happen until 2020, once the standard is fully ratified and becomes increasingly leveraged in flagship devices from key smartphone vendors.

“WiFi 6 pre-standard chipsets are readily available from a number of vendors including Broadcom, Qualcomm, Marvell, Quantenna, Intel, and Celeno,” said Andrew Zignani, senior analyst at ABI Research.

“Enormous growth in WiFi-enabled devices, increased per-user traffic demand, greater number of users per Access Point (AP), increased cellular offloading, higher density WiFi deployments, growing use of outdoor WiFi, heterogeneous device and traffic types, and a desire for more power and spectral efficiency are all major driving forces behind 802.11ax’s introduction. As a result, WiFi 6 is already seeing strong traction in networking and enterprise applications due to its ability to enhance performance in dense environments,” Zignani added.

In addition, the FCC recently voted in favor of opening 1200 MHz of spectrum for unlicensed devices in the 6GHz band. The 802.11ax working group is currently determining how best to incorporate 6GHz support into 802.11ax in anticipation of the spectrum becoming available. This will help pave the way for smoother adoption of 6GHz chipsets and devices if it is granted.

“The rollout of 802.11ax in conjunction with extra spectrum availability will enable better WiFi service and performance than ever before, allowing it to scale up to the next billion of devices, and enable the technology to support growth and traffic demands for the next decade. If additional spectrum is made available, many stakeholders anticipate that most of the station and AP devices going forward will have tri-band capabilities that support 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz,” said Zignani.

The increased spectrum is also likely to form the foundation of the next Extremely High Throughput standard that goes beyond 802.11ax with the primary objective of increasing throughput through wider 320MHz channels, more spatial streams, and multi-band aggregation.

The WiFi Alliance’s recent introduction of generational branding for different WiFi standards has been well received by the industry and will likely better advertise the WiFi capabilities and enhancement to end-users looking forward.

“For some time, ABI Research has identified the need for WiFi to strengthen its branding and market message to better convey the new features and functionalities supported in the latest WiFi standards, particularly among consumers,” Zignani added.

“The greater awareness of WiFi devices strengths and limitations could also drive competition and greater incentivization in the market – people may no longer be happy with legacy connectivity in their broadband providers default supplied router and may be willing to spend more on a device with WiFi 6 vs. WiFi 5, in a similar vein to 3G vs. 4G and soon to be 5G in the cellular space. This could lead to a more competitive market in which WiFi is increasingly leveraged as a key differentiator between different device types and becomes a more important factor in a consumer’s purchase decision than ever before,” Zignani concluded.

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