When Wi-Fi 6 arrives, it’s going to do more than just connect you to the Internet at faster speeds. It’s also going to allow more devices to connect to a router, and keep them all running at higher speeds, making it ideal for busy offices, malls and universities or Internet of things (IoT) environments.
Wi-Fi 6 will eliminate the issues caused by connecting dozens of devices to a single network, by letting routers communicate with more devices simultaneously, and keeping their connections strong despite more devices demanding data. Another spin-off will be improved battery efficiency in each device.
In other words, Wi-Fi 6 will allow enterprises to introduce an all-wireless environment, says Gys Malan, a solution manager for Huawei. Speaking at a webinar on Wi-Fi 6 hosted by TechCentral and sponsored by Pinnacle and Huawei, Malan predicted that Wi-Fi 6 will be the de facto standard within 12 to 18 months. “Wi-Fi 6 can really benefit any organisation that’s interested in an all-wireless office with a greater user experience, or industrial spaces that would like to benefit from autonomous machines and unmanned machines. These areas are perfectly suited for Wi-Fi 6,” he said.
Concurrency to keep all the devices running is as important as high throughput speeds, he added, and Wi-Fi 6 scores well here. “One of the big shortfalls from previous versions of Wi-Fi is that it’s able to provide massive bandwidth, but once there are a lot of users on the network the bandwidth will be degraded, and there will be issues of low latency, which is the enemy of any form of data that needs to be stored in motion,” he said.
“Low latency has really never been addressed and it’s required for new applications such as automated vehicles and unmanned machines. Wi-Fi 6 meets the requirements for ultra-low latency and high-density connections.”
The ability to run numerous services on their upgraded wireless networks could see businesses open their minds to new opportunities and additional offerings, the participants heard.
The new technology isn’t flawless, however, and companies must assess any potential pain points before they made the change, said Daniel Robis, who moderated the roundtable discussion. One downside is the need to buy new hardware, starting with a Wi-Fi 6-enabled router, as well as the IoT devices, phones and laptops that will connect to it.
Malan said customers would have various options in terms of architecture for a Wi-Fi 6 deployment, and could retain parts of their existing setup, like smart antennas to provide premium connectivity to endpoints. “I’ve heard a lot of customers asking whether or not they need to replace their entire fleet of switches. The answer is not necessarily; we are able to work around this depending on their specific requirements,” he said.
“Each environment, be it outdoor, indoor or underground, requires different architecture, different antennas and therefore different access points. One should have the option within a specific OEM to choose a piece based on each scenario.”
Companies could also make the transition gradually, since Wi-Fi 5 and 6 could work concurrently, he said.
Better and cheaper Wi-Fi was vital to facilitate Internet access for many people who would otherwise be left behind, said Lufuno Khorommbi, a director of Orizur, a cyber-law consultancy. The journey of turning South Africans into digital citizens wouldn’t get out of the starting blocks without Wi-Fi, especially in rural or marginalised areas, she said. “It makes connectivity easier and it makes things seamless. From a public sector perspective, I can also say that it supports the policy on interoperability so it’s meeting certain government compliance requirements, too.”
Wi-Fi had proved essential for the Mangosuthu University of Technology during the Covid virus lockdown. “The university suddenly had 12 000 students who needed access to the system for e-learning, which is different to what they are used to,” said Marlo de Swardt, its senior director of ICT. “We’ve set critical guidelines that no student will be left behind, so we had to get onto e-learning. And when you talk about an e-learning platform, you immediately have to talk about Wi-Fi.”
The students were supplied with data and laptops, which meant provisioning the wireless network to handle an extra 12 000 devices. “All our buildings are Wi-Fi connected and we have common areas that are connected to access points. The aim is to build a fully connected smart university, meaning that a student can come onto campus and in any place connect to a Wi-Fi connection,” he said. In that situation, a Wi-Fi 6 network would be useful for providing the extra speed and capacity to keep all the students working simultaneously.
In some places, Wi-Fi is taking over from or eliminating the need for cable installations.
Ajay Sharma, vice president and head of technology — South Africa & Europe — at EXL, added that in his organisation’s environment, which is an outsourcing environment with tough conditions, it was imperative for them to make sure that employees, while the restrictions were imposed by the government, remained productive at all times. “Wi-Fi has played a very important role in terms of enabling that because you need to have strong connectivity.
“Everything seems to have gone the Wi-Fi route now,” said Paul Fuyane, technical director at Global Computing and Telecoms. “With Covid-19, everything seems to have moved much closer to the user, so it appears that cable is becoming obsolete. Although cable can still be found in large environments, it’s swiftly coming out of play. Most of us are working from home, using either DSL connections or fibre links connected to a Wi-Fi device, so by the end of 2021 Wi-Fi 6 is going to be the connectivity of choice.”
Security will always be an issue for wireless networks, and it’s a big consideration for the Gautrain company. Henry Denner, its information security officer, said the Gautrain wants its employees to be able to connect from anywhere at any time. But the challenge with Wi-Fi is that it has no physical edge and isn’t contained within a building, so hackers don’t need to plug into a physical point to intercept it. “They can do this from a car park or a lobby,” he said. Even though today’s wireless networks have very good security, a determined hacker will eventually get in. “The trick is to find an ideal balance when it comes to security, because the more controls you put in place, the more issues you will have around shadow IT and similar,” Denner said.
The participants largely agreed that any Wi-Fi upgrade would have to be approved from further up the ladder by people who may not understand technology. That was compounded by tight budgets, added Kobus Pienaar, an IT, technology and digitalisation consultant.
Pienaar works with clients like mining companies, where the decision is often made by the chief financial officer. “Typical mines have huge spreads of activity and it becomes a different financial model than having to replace 10 or 20 devices in an office. We’re looking at 150 to 200-plus devices,” he said.
That would be an expensive upgrade because the devices would need a different cabling standard, or rather six to eight standards, and a different type of switch in the backend that could handle the 10Gbit/s speed and many multiple users.
Pienaar added that everybody was on a tight budget, and trying to get the maximum from their devices and technologies. “I know that with every single company I deal with the typical replacement cycle of PCs is out the door at the moment, it doesn’t happen,” he said.
For Akiva Beebe, regional director at the Centre for Creative Leadership, it’s a question of selling technology to the board. His organisation predominantly serves global Fortune 500 businesses, and helps them understand the need for digital transformation for business survival. Good connectivity is fundamental for any digital transformation, but board members want to know how an investment in networking will boost the bottom line.
Many potential investments fell by the wayside because of a lack of trust, a lack of readiness, or the CIO just didn’t like the idea, Beebe said.
Denner of the Gautrain said that when it came to investing in new IT, a key concept to consider was architecture. “Often we develop apps and we look at costs and ease of use, but we forget how it all fits into the business architecture, both from our operational side and from the IT and technical side.”
There had to be a solid business case to justify any new technology, and full agreement from the security, operations and enterprise architecture teams. “If there is alignment between all those teams, and they all agree on the platform and technology, you have a very good business case,” he said.
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