I always liked the name Wi-Fi. Some say it comes from Wireless Fidelity. Others say the name was just a fun word play off High Fidelity (for those of us who may own/owned music albums). Wi-Fi was originally designed to support basic network connectivity for limited services such as retail point of sale (POS) transactions in proprietary business environments. Early consumer adoption kicked off in 1999 when Apple adopted the wireless standard, then branded as AirPort, for its iBook, with IBM announcing its support of Wi-Fi a year later for the ThinkPad 1300. Wi-Fi acceptance quickly accelerated with Intel’s launch and branding of the Centrino platform in 2003. Intel’s endorsement and integration significantly simplified connecting wireless clients and helped make Wi-Fi a standard requirement at hospitality suites across the world.

These early iterations of the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard were relatively limited in terms of speed, spectrum utilization and the efficiency of communications between the access point (AP) and client devices. In fact, the very first iteration of the Wi-Fi standard specified only two raw data rates of 1 and 2 megabits per second (Mbit/s). Fortunately, Wi-Fi has rapidly evolved over the years, bolstered by dedicated memory, faster throughput, and more sophisticated algorithms. Put simply, we’ve been putting bigger engines in our cars. 

The latest Wi-Fi iteration – Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – offers a four-fold increase in speed over its Wi-Fi 5 predecessor, enabling hotels to smoothly stream a range of guest applications including 4-8K video, VR/AR applications, and eSports games. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 supports many devices and systems – including IoT infrastructure, smartphones, tablets, and laptops – in high-density environments such as hospitality rooms, convention centers, gyms and pools.

It is important to emphasize that Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is revolutionary, rather than simply evolutionary. This is because Wi-Fi 6 isn’t just faster than its predecessors, it is smarter (deterministic) and moves away from a ‘first come, first served’ model. Put simply, Wi-Fi 6 isn’t about brute force speed increases, as the new wireless standard prioritizes more effective utilization of spectrum for both Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) APs and clients. 

To better understand this concept, let’s think about a carpool lane, with the first two lanes dedicated to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) devices. Let’s imagine 50% of the devices are Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and 50% are Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). We put all the Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) devices in the carpool lane, allowing them to operate more efficiently. The remaining Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) clients benefit because we took half the cars from all the lanes – which frees up contention for the Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) devices. This provides higher throughput and performance for networks, allowing everyone to move at 15 miles an hour instead of 10.  

The impact of Wi-Fi 6 in hospitality

Next-generation Wi-Fi 6 APs (802.11ax) have already begun shipping, with IDC forecasting Wi-Fi 6 deployment ramping significantly in 2019 and becoming the dominant enterprise Wi-Fi standard by 2021. Hotels must plan now for the coming tide of guest devices expecting Wi-Fi 6. This new wireless infrastructure is for hospitality guests and property alike, as Wi-Fi 6 significantly improves operational efficiency.

Wi-Fi 6 access points are already changing the hospitality landscape. This is the first major change in Wi-Fi architecture and the long-term benefits will last for years to come. The bottleneck used to be on the client device. Then APs became more powerful and moved the bottleneck back to the client. Now with Wi-Fi 6, the client device and AP are optimized – and the conversation will change to switching in support of these faster communications. I still like the name Wi-Fi and think it keeps getting better with age.

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