Why I’m excited for Apple’s Wi-Fi 6 iPhones

It doesn't matter if we see 5G iPhones appear this year. Wi-Fi 6 is where the most immediate benefits will be seen.

Apple, Wi-Fi, iPhone, 5G, iOS, mobile, Bluetooth, Cisco
Bob Brown/IDG/NetworkWorld

Don’t fret too much when Apple fails to introduce a 5G iPhone this year; it’s not terribly important that it does. Wi-Fi 6, on the other hand…

Hybrid network capacity

The latest edition of Cisco’s Mobile Visual Networking Index (VNI) Forecast (2017 – 2022) makes several predictions around 5G.

What seems most critical about these predictions isn’t so much that 5G connections and devices will amount to 3 percent of global mobile devices and connections by 2022, but that the fast network will be part of a parcel of wireless technologies designed to keep a heavily connected planet online.

You see, Wi-Fi use is also expected to increase.

In part, this is because mobile carriers and device makers recognize that provisioning the sheer amount of bandwidth being consumed by connected items is going to require deployment of mixed-standard networks.

Your 5G connection will hand traffic over to your Wi-Fi connection. Your enterprise app will get preferential treatment on its data journey thanks to smart SD-WAN deployments.

(Orange Business Services explains how these kinds of sophisticated networks can improve application performance by ensuring quality of service across all the hybrid network components across a data journey – changing those components on an ad hoc basis as and when circumstances change.)

Most iPhone users aren’t terribly aware of this kind of network hand-off, but we are already experiencing it when our phones automatically use Wi-Fi to make a call.

Fifty-nine percent of global mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022, says Cisco.

Data is 59% Wi-Fi and 20% mobile

Cisco’s survey alludes to the development of these rapidly in deployment always-on, always-available smart hybrid network coverage models.

Here are three stats from the report:

  • Globally, 111.4 exabytes of mobile data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi by 2022 compared to 13.4 exabytes in 2017 (on a monthly basis).
  • Globally, by 2022, 51 percent of total IP traffic will be Wi-Fi, 29 percent will be wired, and 20 percent will be mobile (cellular).
  • Globally, total public Wi-Fi hotspots (including homespots) will grow four-fold from 2017 to 2022 (from 124 million in 2017 to 549 million by 2022).

The evolution of network capacity at this kind of level must be part of the direction of travel Apple is taking in its own internal 5G development plans.

This isn’t just about making devices that work well with 5G, but also creating solutions that seamlessly and intelligently switch between network providing resources on the fly with no impact on service levels.

You only need to find yourself trying to open a webpage in a public place that also offers a public Wi-Fi connection your iPhone isn’t authorized to use to see that Apple has a long way to go to make devices smart enough to make such decisions instantly. I usually find I have to disable Wi-Fi in such situations before the phone decides to use my LTE bandwidth.

Cisco also predicts a ten-fold increase in use of low-power wide-area networks (WAN), most likely as an attempt to maintain connectivity for the rapid deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices across enterprise and domestic life.

Smarter at the edge

This is a context in which it makes a lot of sense to ensure that network support is rendered smarter at the edge.

Your iPhone needs to be able to figure out that you want to be connected, needs to identify and join the best available network provider, and needs to be able to blip between those providers on an ad hoc basis in real time with no interruption whatsoever to whatever task you are trying to transact.

That’s going to require AI at a modem level, which itself implies that modems will become even more like mini computers with their own security and feature upgrade paths.

They may even learn how to support your unique needs as you use them — predicting the next network provision swap or application bandwidth demand before you make them.

What about Wi-Fi 6?

The big picture is that Wi-Fi, not 5G, will be the more immediate Next Big Thing (NBT) for network bandwidth provision. This is because Wi-Fi will see its own big enhancement in 2019, when Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) makes an appearance.

The new Wi-Fi is much better than the old Wi-Fi 5 and exponentially better than the 802.11b Wi-Fi popularized by Apple with the introduction of the clamshell tangerine iBook back in 1999.

Wi-Fi 6 is built for better performance in congested spaces – so you’ll see performance improved in homes which buffet against neighbor’s networks, better performance in your office, and better performance using Wi-Fi in public spaces, such as (dare I say it) in the conference chamber at WWDC.

The Wi-Fi Alliance claims the following significant improvements:

  • 4x better performance in dense or congested environments
  • Up to 40 percent higher peak data rates for a single client device
  • 4x better network efficiency
  • Better battery life on client devices (such as iPhones)
  • You’ll even get better speed on a 2.4GHz network

The snag?

Like 5G, Wi-Fi 6 hasn’t yet been completely ratified.

When it is, you won’t have to wait too long before you see Wi-Fi 6-compatible routers and devices reach market, with certification set to begin in Q3 2019 and devices set to ship soon after.

It sure will be interesting to see which mass market consumer electronics manufacturer introduces the first devices that support the new Wi-Fi standard.

The great thing, of course, is that a Wi-Fi 6 device will work happily on an older network, just as a theoretically 5G device will still function on a 4G network.

A little bit of everything

Which of these networks will see the most rapid proliferation?

I think Wi-Fi 6 deployment will be far more rapid than 5G. In part this is because its cheaper to deploy a Wi-Fi 6 router than a 5G mast.

It's also because those who may choose to install a Wi-Fi 6 network come from a wide congregation of stakeholders, from home users to service providers, enterprise users and more.

Finally, all parties have an interest in offloading bandwidth capacity from expensive mobile networks to cheaper Wi-Fi setups.

Ultimately, we’ll see both advanced networking technologies become mainstream, but the direction of travel will still be toward intelligent network switching and hybrid access.

With so much change to deal with, it’s no great surprise Apple has put together its own modem development team under the leadership of the man who built the world’s fastest A-series mobile processor, Johny Srouji.

Bottom line? I don’t care if we see 5G iPhones appear this year – I’m all about Wi-Fi 6, as that’s where I predict the most immediate benefits will be seen.

And don’t even get me started ranting on about the inherent intelligence and battery life improvements of Bluetooth 5 (available in recent iPhones). Though I guess there’s always that upcoming AirPods 2 event that might give us the opportunity.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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