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From Home Office to HQ: Consumerization of Wi-Fi 6E

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Consumerization of IT is a phrase used to describe a shift in information technology (IT) that begins in the consumer market and moves into business and government facilities.

It has become commonplace for employees to introduce consumer market devices into the workplace after already embracing this new technology at home – which is what happened with Wi-Fi.

In the early days of Wi-Fi (2000 – 2005), most businesses did not provide wireless access to the corporate network due to the limited wireless security options available at that time. That lack of security, along with a general mistrust of the unknown, made it common for companies to avoid implementing Wi-Fi networks.

But that didn’t matter to consumers. They were already buying consumer-grade 802.11b wireless routers and using them in their homes. They bought laptops and other devices with Wi-Fi capabilities, and they quickly fell in love with the mobility. They cut the Ethernet cord and had wireless access to the Internet from any room in their house at blazing speeds of 11 Mbps.

Ironically, these same Wi-Fi security problems pushed the enterprise toward adoption. Employees enjoyed the flexibility of Wi-Fi at home, so they ignored their IT department and bought consumer-grade Wi-Fi routers to work. Eventually, enterprises realized that they needed to deploy Wi-Fi so that they could manage the technology (and avoid rogue access points installed by employees). They deployed enterprise-grade Wi-Fi access points and issued Wi-Fi-enabled employee devices. And as Wi-Fi evolved and security improved, enterprises became reliant on it.

The advent of personal mobile Wi-Fi devices kicked off the next wave of Wi-Fi consumerization. Devices like the first iPhone were originally meant for personal use, but in a very short time, employees wanted to use their personal mobile devices on company Wi-Fi networks. Additionally, enterprises began to purchase devices to take advantage of emerging mobile enterprise applications. Within a few years, the number of mobile devices connecting to corporate WLANs surpassed the number of laptop connections.

Consumers are now buying Wi-Fi 6E devices, a trend that will drive the next wave of enterprise Wi-Fi adoption. The new 6 GHz spectrum available for Wi-Fi is more than double the usable channels of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels combined. It effectively triples the available unlicensed spectrum available for Wi-Fi – it’s a big deal.  

In the long term, we will see tremendous development and innovation for higher bandwidth applications. We are at the beginning of a renaissance of innovation for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications that can be used via a Wi-Fi connection. AR/VR technologies have, for the most part, been used for gaming at home, but they are now finding their way to the enterprise. The 1200 MHz of 6 GHz spectrum now available for Wi-Fi will help consumers drive these technologies to the enterprise even further.

Although the adoption of 6 GHz Wi-Fi in the enterprise has just begun, expect consumers to demand it at work, as the availability of Wi-Fi 6E client devices is growing exponentially. Numerous Wi-Fi 6E-capable smartphones are already available, and over 60 newly released laptops from multiple brands support Wi-Fi 6E.

Consumers are already buying these Wi-Fi 6E devices, and companies will want to deploy enterprise Wi-Fi 6E access points to accommodate them. Beginning with Wi-Fi 6E, the 6 GHz spectrum is the future for Wi-Fi for the next ten years and beyond. And consumers will drive that future.

That said, rolling out Wi-Fi 6E in an enterprise comes with a unique set of challenges. Here is my immediate advice for enterprises considering the upgrade:

  • Start early: With supply chain issues showing no signs of slowing down, almost every vendor has developed a backlog of orders. If you are considering a network upgrade, now is the time to start conversations.
  • Consider your Wi-Fi client population: While most Wi-Fi 6E enterprise APs are expected to be tri-frequency, only the newer devices with 6 GHz support will be able to fully benefit from the connectivity upgrade. Conduct a quick audit of the client population to identify outdated devices that could benefit from replacement.
  • Don’t overlook security: Despite the massive upside, Wi-Fi 6E does pose a new (largely overlooked) set of security challenges and considerations. For example, in 6 GHz, there’s no more WPA2, and no more open and unencrypted access. For the foreseeable future, we’re looking at a world of two levels of security: WPA3 in 6 GHz and WPA2 in 2.4 and 5 GHz, requiring a robust security approach.

Consumers are bringing Wi-Fi 6E to the enterprise, and soon. No matter how far out your next network refresh is, now is the time to start thinking about it.

David Coleman is Director of Wireless from the Office of the CTO at Extreme Networks and author of the eBook, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E for Dummies.

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