From 5G to Wi-Fi 6, connectivity is offering industries new opportunities to communicate, changing the way we receive information. The opportunities are really endless, as I like to say. Can this help us end poverty, inequality, water shortages, hunger, you name it? Let’s take a closer look at what is happening in the wide world of connectivity—the disruptors in this space—to reveal what is going to come in the next century.

According to a study released by Deloitte last year, only three in 10 respondents currently consider 5G or Wi-Fi 6 as a top-three critical technology—but that’s about to change. In the next three years, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are expected to more than double in importance, becoming the most critical wireless technologies for organizations. During this same timeframe, 4G/LTE and older versions of Wi-Fi—or the sunsetting of the versions will likely lessen in importance, but they won’t cease to exist. As we have witnessed with their predecessors 2G and 3G, at least the next few years, 4G and 5G networks are expected to coexist and play nicely in a very face-paced world of connected devices.

Let’s start this week by looking at Wi-Fi, then explore 5G next week. For one, in the short term, Wi-Fi has played a key role in helping reduce the negative impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic by limiting the impact of social isolation and giving businesses the ability to move services online. We have seen firsthand how connectivity can keep economies humming along. As part of its Wi-Fi predictions for 2021, the Wi-Fi Alliance suggests Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, Passpoint, and other Wi-Fi technologies will drive a surge in technology innovation continuing well after the pandemic—more on all that shortly.

First, let’s look a bit deeper at Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi Alliance defines Wi-Fi 6 as the latest generation of Wi-Fi, offering greater capacity, efficiency, and performance for advanced connectivity. Wi-Fi 6 will see strong global adoption across PCs, access points, smartphones, and IoT (Internet of Things) devices in enterprises, homes, and public arenas. Businesses can expect big growth here. Think nearly 2 billion Wi-Fi 6 device shipments expected in 2021.

With that comes opportunities for vertical markets—specifically industrial and hospital networks, as Wi-Fi 6 offers low-latency connections. New uses will naturally fall within the realm of helping meet health and safety guidelines at places like transportation hubs, airports, and stadiums to deliver necessary social distance measures, health-check screening, and more. This could also open up opportunities for higher bandwidth applications such as AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and even holographic video. We will certainly see use cases in telemedicine, education, and more, as these verticals rely on speed and latency.

Enterprises in general also can use wireless to improve workplace communication. In an office, for example, Wi-Fi 6 can increase the speed of voice and video applications. With employees working from home, enterprises can use advanced wireless technology to improve remote productivity as well. In the study from Deloitte, respondents expressed some preference for using Wi-Fi 6 for indoor, fixed, on-campus use cases, compared with 5G for outdoor, mobile, and off-campus use cases.

There are other drivers and hurdles for Wi-Fi 6 that need to be addressed here. For instance, regulatory momentum around 6 GHz will lead to greater availability of unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi worldwide in 2021, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. The U.S. recently cleared unlicensed access to 1200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band. The U.K., Europe, South Korea, Chile, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates are expected to deliver 6 GHz to their citizens before the end of the year, and many other countries are following their lead. The Wi-Fi Alliance predicts users will see worldwide rollout of Wi-Fi 6E devices as multiple vendors embrace 6 GHz. Up to seven superwide 160 MHz channels can be used with this newly available spectrum.

Another factor to keep in mind is the latest generation of Wi-Fi security, WPA3, brings critical updates to personal and enterprise networks to protect users. Wi-Fi Alliance now requires all new Wi-Fi CERTIFIED devices to support WPA3 security, and in 2021 the industry will see greater adoption of WPA3 across more devices, networks, and environments—including sensitive environments like governments and financial institutions. Another trend to watch is solutions such as Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint, which will help bridge the gap between cellular and Wi-Fi to make Wi-Fi more accessible and secure.

But we also need to keep our eyes set on the future—and the future just might be Wi-Fi 7. One thing is for sure, all the work being done with Wi-Fi 6 is preparing the way for Wi-Fi 7, which is anticipated to arrive just a few years down the line, with companies such as Intel, and Qualcomm looking to the future for what the next iteration of Wi-Fi will bring.

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