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Final 802.11ax release date now slated for late 2019

When it comes to the hotly anticipated new wireless standard, are we there yet? This 802.11ax timeline notes key milestones in the draft's development and explains what's next.

Final 802.11ax release date now slated for late 2019

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, expects to ratify the new 802.11ax wireless LAN standard -- or, as the Wi-Fi Alliance calls it, Wi-Fi 6 -- by the beginning of 2020. Originally due in the first quarter of 2019, .11ax has required extensive heavy lifting on the part of the IEEE committee charged with its development. According to an IHS Markit research report, the complex standard introduces roughly 75 new features -- around nine times more than the previous upgrade, 802.11ac.

The committee rejected the first two drafts of the new high-efficiency wireless standard in 2016 and 2017, delaying the projected 802.11ax release date by nearly a year. Finally, in July 2018, 87% of the members voted to pass Draft 3.0.

The IEEE committee will continue to refine the approved draft -- reconciling more than 2,000 technical comments that members submitted with their recent votes -- before submitting it to the standards board for final ratification in December 2019.

Analysts agreed the group is unlikely to make significant changes ahead of the 802.11ax release date. Many experts have now turned their attention to the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), which expects to launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program sometime in 2019, and to wireless chipset manufacturers.

"Basically, the standard is done. There's broad consensus on what it is going to be," said Craig Mathias, an IEEE member and principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.

Basically, the standard is done. There's broad consensus on what it's going to be.
Craig MathiasFarpoint Group analyst

"Chipmakers will be the No. 1 determinant as far as what gets delivered and when, in Wave 1 versus Wave 2," he added.   

Broadcom, Celeno, Intel, Marvell, Qualcomm and Quantenna have all released pre-standard .11ax silicon and will likely roll out updated versions based on the approved third draft. ABI Research forecasts a billion Wi-Fi 6 chipsets will ship annually by 2022.

Pre-standard access points (APs) have also already hit the market, with Aerohive Networks and Aruba Networks launching early offerings more than a year before the official 802.11ax release date.

Some analysts cautioned draft-based gear might not support all features of the final, ratified standard. Because 802.11ax doesn't formally exist yet, products technically can't -- or at least shouldn't -- claim full compliance. 

"You should never say, 'This is an [.11ax] product,' if [.11ax] hasn't been completely ratified," Mathias said. But products based on the most recent, approved draft will almost certainly achieve Wi-Fi 6 certification with the help of firmware upgrades, he added. "We're not really worried that people will be buying products that will become obsolete."

Until a significant number of .11ax clients hit the WLAN, however, the new access points' biggest selling points -- such as orthogonal frequency division multiplexing -- will remain theoretical. Without next-generation clients, the APs revert to backward-compatible mode and behave like legacy 802.11ac or 802.11n devices.

IHS analysts Yogita Kanesin and Christian Kim recently predicted Wi-Fi 6 clients will start to appear in 2019, before the tentative 802.11ax release date at year's end. They said they anticipate shipments will then grow sharply in 2020, skyrocketing to 193 million units annually in 2021.

Until then, however, Kanesin and Kim cautioned that market adoption will "seem very slow" through 2019, as the IEEE continues to refine the standard and the WFA begins interoperability testing.

Delays notwithstanding, many wireless networking enthusiasts predicted the new standard will be well worth the wait.

"We expect it will have very broad uptake," Mathias said. "Let's face it: [.11ax] is going to dominate the marketplace within five to seven years."

This was first published in December 2018

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