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When Will The 802.11ax Standard Be Complete?

By Craig Mathias in · Experts · May 31, 2017
802.11ax completion is on the horizon and full compliance is possible in the first half of 2019. This final post in our series on the next Wi-Fi standard let's you know what to expect from the timeline.

With products based on 802.11ax appearing in the not-too-distant future, and full compliance possible in the first half of 2019, what should enterprises, governments, and organizations of all types (to say nothing of the residence and public-space applications, at least for now) expect? 

Here are some guidelines for how to plan for an eventuality that will be here sooner than many believe:

Availability – Our working-model schedule for .11ax at present (and thus subject to change) is as follows:

  • Approved draft IEEE standard – 4Q 2017/1Q 2018; publication – 1Q 2019
  • Pre-standard products based on the approved draft become available – 2H 2018, with likely firmware updates to the final standard
  • Interim Wi-Fi certification – 4Q 2018
  • Final Wi-Fi certification – 4Q 2019
  • Volume production – 4Q 2019
  • Broad client-device availability – 2020
  • Market dominance (residence in the majority of Wi-Fi units sold) – 2H 2021 in terms of sales, and 2023/2024 in terms of overall installed base. We’re not expecting much wholesale rip-and-replace of .11ac installations until well into the 2023/2024 timeframe. But we’re also not expecting much in the way of enhancements to .11ac after 2018, either.

Pricing – While Wi-Fi is going to get another very significant performance boost with 802.11ax, we’re not expecting prices to change very much. Price/performance thus improves significantly over .11ac and earlier standards. One unknown, though, is the impact of inflation, which has been running around 2% if you believe the economists on TV.

I do expect inflation to pick up just a bit going forward, with an improving economy delivering growth at greater than the rate of inflation, presenting upward pressure on prices, but competition will remain fierce, so price inflation should be muted. Anyway – expect another great financial deal continuing a longstanding and most welcome tradition within Wi-Fi.

Keep in mind also that it’s not really about price, but rather about value. Put another way, it’s not about what you spend, but rather what you get. And getting a solution that doesn’t address current and anticipated future needs is an exercise in self-deception. Keep in mind also that it’s not really about price, but rather about value

Also keep in mind that vendor implementations – at both the chip and system levels – will vary, with some vendors inadequately addressing or even missing altogether key capabilities, and some will employ what I like to call a “Standards+” strategy, adding unique value beyond what’s in the standard alone. 

Regardless, what’s most important in any purchasing decision is assuring that end users are happy and productive – that’s why these investments are made in the first place, after all.

Establishing an upgrade/migration strategy 

Some organizations will, in fact, need the boost in performance embodied in 802.11ax right away because the demands on their networks are growing at a rapid pace. 

Most end-user organizations, though will follow a pattern well-established with .11n and .11ac – augmentation of existing infrastructure to add new (greenfield) capacity and planned replacements of older technologies define the key entry points for most.

I strongly advocate, regardless, the replacement of all technologies earlier than .11n as soon as possible. Some specialized devices, particularly in healthcare and industrial automation, present major cost challenges here, as vendors in these and several other applications areas tend to move slowly, if at all, in the integration of contemporary Wi-Fi capabilities.

But operating a .11ax client in the same channel simultaneously with a .11g client is a bit like driving a Bugatti Chiron (arguably the fastest production car in the world, with a 0-60 of 2 seconds) behind a Smart CDI (arguably the slowest; around 20 seconds). Old clients are, in fact, the greatest obstacle to realizing the true value of .11ax (to say nothing of .11ac).

But, if such is unavoidable, I expect backwards compatibility to at least 802.11n in 802.11ax.

Regardless, I expect w.11ac to be around for many years yet, and still viable in slow-growth environments through 2025 or so. 802.11n, similarly, may still fill the bill, but its retirement is now appearing in planning exercise on a more frequent basis. 

Keep in mind that .11n really goes back to around 2006, and, while it clearly pointed the way forward in a more revolutionary manner than any other Wi-Fi standard, all things do indeed pass.

I still expect some organizations will benefit from products operating in the 60 GHz. bands and based on 802.11ad (7 Gbps) and the upcoming 802.11ay (20 Gbps). But it’s going to take significant end-user demand to convince the chip and systems vendors to make the needed investments here, and I suspect that .11ac Wave 2 and .11ax will continue to meet the needs of most organizations for the foreseeable future. 

Still if a lot more WLAN performance is required, a path to address this need exists.

It’s vital to keep in mind that much of what I’ve presented in this series is based on the best available information about something which does not yet exist – so it’s important to stay tuned and to have a near-term conversation with your Wi-Fi system vendor as to their plans. 

We’re a bit out on a limb here, but since we’re unlikely to see large new blocks of unlicensed spectrum become available or basic technologies make a quantum leap forward, it may very well be that 802.11ax is the last major new PHY standard that we’ll see, at least for a long time.

But the evolution it represents will, coupled with the vendor-specific advances that really define the solutions I use, continue to keep Wi-Fi powerful and productive on organizational networks – and beyond.

Craig Mathias (@farpoint1)

Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile IT. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference and event speaker, and author. He currently writes columns for Boundless, Connected Futures, CIO.com, and various sites at TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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