When millions of Americans were forced to work from home this year, it created an enormous strain on home Wi-Fi networks. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi activity increased by 82 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels with record numbers of devices connecting and moving an unprecedented amount of data.
Few home networks have been able to efficiently handle the near-constant work, school and entertainment demands for Internet access. In fact, C-level executives and IT professionals say unreliable Internet access is the No. 1 problem with work-from-home operations, according to a recent Navisite survey. Respondents said bandwidth limitations have contributed to an array of problems, such as delays in accessing applications and data, jittery web conferencing and slow system performance.
Organizations and individuals alike are expected to address these challenges by upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 networking gear in 2021. Also known as 802.11ax or High-Efficiency Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi 6 standard was designed to improve speed, increase efficiency and reduce congestion in heavy bandwidth-usage scenarios. Analysts say it will produce a four-fold increase in average throughput per user.
Feeling the Strain
There has been intense interest in Wi-Fi 6 since the standard was officially introduced in late 2019. Shipments of Wi-Fi 6 chipsets tripled in 2020, according to ABI Research, with more than 380 million units going out for use in routers, tablets, PCs, smartphones and some premium home entertainment devices.
Wi-Fi networks have been under strain for years due to unrelenting demand. One recent study claims that Wi-Fi data usage in the average U.S. household has increased by nearly 4,000 percent over the past 10 years. In addition, increased interference and congestion degrades service in “device-dense” environments such as airports, railway stations, malls, stadiums and manufacturing facilities.
Although most of us don’t realize it, our homes have become “device-dense” environments as well. In addition to PCs, laptops and printers, most homes today have phones, televisions, digital assistants, gaming consoles, smart thermostats and other connected devices contending for bandwidth.
Wi-Fi 6 routers should significantly improve home network performance by increasing overall capacity while reducing network latency. In addition to providing faster and more consistent Internet connectivity, they will allow more users and more devices to connect simultaneously without deteriorating performance or response times.
Coming Soon: 6E
Although an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 will drive increased efficiency and productivity, some analysts are urging patience. An even faster standard — Wi-Fi 6E — is on the horizon. In April, the Federal Communications Commission approved a proposal to open up a 1,200MHz range of spectrum in the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi. It was the largest increase in more than 20 years.
That opens up a lot more space for broadcasting Wi-Fi signals, which should enable even faster and more reliable connectivity. However, it may be another year before 6E-compatible routers, phones and other devices hit the market in great numbers. In early December, the FCC granted the world’s first 6E device certification for a smartphone chipset.
Wi-Fi upgrades will be essential for the continued support of the remote workforce. However, organizations may need to do considerable upfront work to prepare. The increased traffic may lead to cascading problems with the wired network. We recommend conducting a new WLAN survey to identify what standards your existing clients and access points currently support, what upgrades will be needed and whether existing wiring runs are sufficient. Give us a call to learn more about the benefits, challenges and options for a Wi-Fi upgrade in 2021.