Chip supply problems might mean Wi-Fi 6E is skipped over for Wi-Fi 7, says analyst

Lack of endpoints mean firms are ordering 6 or 7, but not 6E

Supply chain woes with Wi-Fi 6E products could see organisations miss on deploying network kit with the new standard and instead wait on availability of Wi-Fi 7 equipment expected next year, says Dell'Oro Group.

Wi-Fi 6E builds on Wi-Fi 6, itself only a newish standard, by adding support for frequencies in the 6GHz portion of the spectrum. One advantage of this is that compatible devices can be steered to these frequencies, keeping the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands free for other devices and reducing network contention. Cisco is one firm that has just introduced Wi-Fi 6E access points with this capability.

But according to Dell'Oro, although manufacturers might have launched Wi-Fi 6E devices, such products are often either not available, or they are in very limited supply. There is a general shortage of semiconductor components, not just Wi-Fi semiconductors, owing to the pandemic impacting production in the countries where the chips are manufactured, and this has led device vendors to focus resources on shipping the most popular models.

Interviews with systems integrators apparently show that users are asking for Wi-Fi 6 and not Wi-Fi 6E, for one simple reason: a lack of Wi-Fi 6E endpoints.

"The ecosystem generally does not have 6E, meaning smartphones, tablets don't have 6E. I don't know if any computers have 6E, certainly not the mainstream business computers," Dell'Oro founder and CEO Tam Dell'Oro told The Register.

According to Dell'Oro, the chief players in the market do not see supply constraints easing until the end of 2022, and with Wi-Fi 7 products expected to begin shipping next year, the firm concludes that many enterprises are likely to simply delay upgrading their networks until Wi-Fi 7 devices become available, meaning that Wi-Fi 6E looks set to miss the boat.

Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek is already demonstrating Wi-Fi 7 to key customers and industry partners, boasting that its higher throughput will even make wireless connections a viable alternative to wired networks such as Ethernet.

Although the official IEEE 802.11ax standard behind Wi-Fi 6 was only finalised in late 2020, chipmakers were already shipping silicon before then. Dell'Oro estimates that Wi-Fi 6 unit shipments numbered 5.9 million that year, and expects to see a doubling of this to 12 million when the full year figures for 2021 are available.

Wi-Fi 6 is said to have represented approximately 75 per cent of wireless network sales in China in 2021, up from about 50 per cent in 2020, while outside China, Wi-Fi 6 is estimated to have accounted for circa 60 per cent of overall wireless network sales, up from about 35 per cent in 2020.

Wi-Fi 6E was enabled by the US FCC agreeing to approve unlicensed use of the 6GHz band, and a Wi-Fi 6E certification programme was announced by the Wi-Fi Alliance at the start of 2021. At the time, the UK, Chile, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates were among the countries that had also agreed to allow the use of frequencies in the 6GHz band.

The 6GHz spectrum also poses some challenges. Different territories are likely to approve different frequencies, with the US FCC making 1,200MHz of spectrum (5.925GHz – 7.125 GHz) available, while Ofcom in the UK has only made available the lower half of the 6GHz band (5.925GHz–6.425 GHz).

Some other applications are already operating in the 6GHz spectrum, such as microwave products for utilities, public safety, and wireless backhaul, and wireless networks cannot be allowed to interfere with these.

According to Dell'Oro, interference is less likely if products are indoors only, and current Wi-Fi 6E products have been designed to operate on a low-power mode, to limit signal propagation for this reason.

Vendors that are known to have started shipping Wi-Fi 6E products include Extreme Networks and HPE's Aruba division last year, with Cisco now joining the party.

Dell'Oro said her company did not yet have any figures for Wi-Fi 6E shipments, but told The Register: "I am hearing from industry players that 6E is coming in 'below expectation'."

We approached several wireless networking vendors for their views on these issues affecting Wi-Fi 6E products, but only HPE responded, with HPE Aruba veep and wireless CTO Chuck Lukaszewski giving us an upbeat forecast for its products.

"From our vantage point, the outlook for Wi-Fi 6E remains very strong... we can't discuss our Q1 picture because we're currently in quiet period, but in Q4 Aruba was shipping Wi-Fi 6E APs in volume and saw growing demand in the US," he said.

Lukaszewski claimed that Aruba was even seeing demand for Wi-Fi 6E products in countries where the additional spectrum has yet to be opened up.

"Considering that new Wi-Fi 6E products are still being brought to market every day, it seems clear that there's an appetite for 6E," he claimed.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that upcoming Wi-Fi 7 products will not be affected by the same issues of semiconductor supply shortages, though it appears that many in the industry are hoping that the problems will sorted themselves out by the end of 2022.

"Everyone in the industry is thinking by the end of 2022, supplies should be much more available. But that is far enough into the future that it is beyond everyone's crystal ball," said Dell'Oro. ®

“Wi-Fi 7 enterprise class products should be shipping sometime in 2023, so if we estimate second half of the year, which aligns with the OECD economists’ outlook of resolution, then Wi-Fi 7 should have skipped all these problems,” she added. ®

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