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4 Key Factors for Wi-Fi 6E WLAN Design

By Peter Thornycroft, Office of the CTO, Aruba

When I speak with network architects and designers about Wi-Fi 6E, one question that I often get is: How should I design my network differently for Wi-Fi 6E? Although the changes to the specification are relatively minor – Wi-Fi 6E is built on the latest certification Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – it’s important to consider broader implications. Any discussion of how to introduce Wi-Fi 6E and the 6GHz band will depend on facts on the ground such as existing switches, cabling, and priority locations.  If it is a greenfield (new building) deployment, the infrastructure and network design can be optimized to support Wi-Fi 6E.

Upgrading Access Points (APs)

As you probably know, adding support for 6 GHz in Wi-Fi 6E involves swapping out older APs for new models. The new spectrum is so broad that it cannot be treated as an extension of the 5 GHz band, so a new radio chip is needed in the AP. Most new enterprise APs supporting 6E like Aruba’s 635 AP will include three radios for simultaneous tri-band operation.

Wi-Fi 6E APs will allow access to a new 6 GHz band and provide more than double the existing capacity with more contiguous spectrum and wider channels (160 MHz). Further, there are no older Wi-Fi devices, so greenfield operation can be assumed and, without backwards compatibility considerations or background co-channel interference from neighboring WLANs at 6 GHz, high performance is assured.

Key factors for Wi-Fi 6E design

Where upgrade programs involve replacement of older access points across the whole network, there is an opportunity to consider network engineering factors including AP placement, backhaul bandwidth, and AP powering.  If the WLAN is to be upgraded in stages, additional decisions must be made concerning which parts of the network to prioritize for early activity.

Factor 1: Location

AP placement is usually determined by cable runs and is often expensive to change.  Thus, a tri-band AP that replaces an older AP is nearly always mounted in the same location.  But for new or refurbished buildings where cable must be pulled, it should be noted that recent enterprise WLAN designs target coverage of 1500-2000 sq ft (140-190 sq meters) per AP for a denser network than in years past.  The short distances from AP to client device ensure the highest data rates.

Factor 2: Edge switches

As the new generation of enterprise APs will be tri-band and the 6 GHz spectrum is extensive enough to deploy 80 or 160 MHz channels, the amount of traffic passing through each AP will be considerably higher than for earlier equipment. A gigabit Ethernet backhaul may become a bottleneck in the future as more Wi-Fi 6E capable clients access the network, so network engineers should calculate their expected traffic per AP and consider upgrading edge switches to Smart Rate (2.5 or 5 Gbps) Ethernet although in many cases they can hold off until the 6GHz band is more widely used.

Factor 3: Power

With three radios, the new enterprise-class APs require more power than earlier models, typically around the 25.5 W limit of PoE+.  A switch upgrade to PoE++ may be unnecessary in many cases.

Factor 4: Staged upgrades

Another question many WLAN designers will have to answer for a staged upgrade program is which buildings or areas to upgrade first. For this, it is worth considering where the Wi-Fi 6E benefits will be best applied. As with earlier generations, Wi-Fi 6E will first roll out in high-end smartphones and laptop PCs, so it may be helpful to consider where users with these devices are likely to sit and work, rather than covering areas where people stand or walk.

Dive deeper into Wi-Fi 6E WLAN design

To learn more about network design considerations in existing and new environments as well as the key technical components of Wi-Fi 6E, refer to the resources below:

Technical Guide to Wi-Fi 6E

Blog: Wi-Fi 6E: How AP Discovery Works in 6GHz

Explore Aruba’s Wi-Fi 6E AP, the 630 Series