Dec 27 2022

Wi-Fi 6E Is Here. Should Small Businesses Consider Upgrading to It?

The newest Wi-Fi standard is the first to offer access to the 6-gigahertz band, but it comes with some important caveats.

We had an interesting conversation recently with a business looking for guidance on how to ensure the fastest, most reliable network connections for employees when they’re working in the office.

The business is a 400-employee application developer that occupies a 120,000-square-foot office building. Although currently only about a quarter of employees are in the office on a given day, the company wants to equip the space for full occupancy.

The company recently adopted a “Wi-Fi first” approach, in which a majority of its devices will use wireless as the primary means to connect to the network. Moreover, because of the nature of the business, employees frequently send large file transfers over the wireless network.

For this business and others like it, network capacity and speed can have a significant impact on employees’ work experience in the office. In this case, IT leadership wanted to know whether it made sense to invest in Wi-Fi 6E, the latest and most advanced wireless standard.

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How Does Wi-Fi 6E Differ from Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6, released in 2019, offers a significant step forward in speed from Wi-Fi 5, in part by more intelligently selecting devices that should be queried about connecting to the access points. It’s more efficient to query only the devices that are giving signals indicating a desire to “chat” with the network and switching off those that are dormant.

Wi-Fi 6E takes the speed advantage a step further; it’s the only Wi-Fi standard that offers access to the new 6-gigahertz band. Like going from 2.4GHz to today’s more common 5GHz, the new 6GHz band opens up a whole new level of bandwidth possibilities.

But there are some important caveats. First, access points operating on higher-gigahertz bands have lower coverage capability. The amount of spatial coverage you’ll get from an access point is a key factor in planning a wireless deployment, because the less coverage you get from each AP, the more of them you’ll need.

We are often faced with questions about preparing for a move toward a 6GHz-band Wi-Fi deployment. The answer typically depends on two factors: whether the business is ready to add a significant number of APs to make up for the lost spatial coverage, and whether its network is designed to take advantage of the additional speed that a Wi-Fi 6E deployment can offer. That second question raises the other key limitation of Wi-Fi 6E: It’s only as good as the network it runs on.

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Would You Be Better Off with Better Switches Than Wi-Fi 6E?

Bear in mind that Wi-Fi 6 and 6E are designed for higher traffic volume. That makes sense, as we live in a world where the number of devices requiring network access is constantly increasing. But all the additional traffic is inevitably bound for something further up the network, usually a switch.

Most small and midsize businesses that we work with are using 1-gigabit switching to connect their existing APs. However, Wi-Fi 6/6E access points are capable of speeds far greater than 1 gigabit. Put simply, investing in the additional access points required for a Wi-Fi 6 deployment (and even more with 6E) won’t do a business much good unless it’s ready to commit to multigigabit switching to support those faster speeds.

Additionally, if a business isn’t yet saturating 1-gigabit links, it won’t find much benefit from upgrading to faster speeds. That said, some businesses would indeed see advantages from an upgrade in switching capacity, and our view is that’s usually a good place to start when looking for faster network speeds.

READ MORE: Lean how small businesses can manage multicloud environments. 

That brings us back to the 400-employee application developer. In many impactful ways, this company qualified as one of the small to midsize businesses that might see a meaningful benefit from upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E. Its “Wi-Fi first” approach coupled with its relatively small workspace and headcount when at full capacity works great with Wi-Fi 6’s coverage pattern. Additionally, those employees would be able to use the increased bandwidth for their frequent large file transfers.

Yet even for this business, we recommended a more in-depth conversation about its network infrastructure before considering an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E. That’s because in this case, as in most, the business will probably get more speed and reliability by spending its budget on multigigabit switching before deploying a whole new set of Wi-Fi APs, especially since it’s already on Wi-Fi 6.

All that said, however, every business is unique. Don’t hesitate to reach out for a conversation about how to maximize network speed and reliability for your business.

This article is part of BizTech's AgilITy blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #SmallBizIT hashtag.

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