The exec describes how Cisco and Apple worked to optimize Wi-Fi 6.

Jeffrey Schwartz

September 25, 2019

10 Min Read
Wi-Fi 6

Cisco CTO for wireless, Matt MacPherson, celebrated two important milestones last week. The launch of the Wi-Fi 6 Certification program coupled with Apple’s rollout of the new iPhone 11 mark the latest achievements for MacPherson’s engineering team.

The new iPhones are Apple’s first that support Wi-Fi 6, joining the Samsung Galaxy 10 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10 phones, along with an increasing number of laptops that now support the new wireless LAN standard, which is notably faster and more reliable than the existing 802.11ac standard, aka Wi-Fi 5.

Demand for Wi-Fi 6 spells a significant opportunity for partners, who will play a key role in helping commercial and enterprises upgrade their wireless capabilities. While Apple has downplayed the Wi-Fi 6 support in the new crop of iPhones that became available Friday, behind the scenes Cisco worked closely with Apple as part of a partnership announced four years ago to ensure that the latest devices performed optimally on Cisco Wi-Fi 6 access points (APs).


Cisco’s Matt MacPherson

MacPherson talked to Channel Futures about the technical capabilities Wi-Fi 6 offers, how Cisco works with Apple and the importance of the new certification program put in place by the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA).

Channel Futures: Explain some of the key areas your team has worked on with Apple regarding Wi-Fi 6 that will stand out?

Matt MacPherson: We’ve been working a long time with Apple on building features and capabilities with the idea that we not only want to make Wi-Fi better for the end user, but make it better for IT departments. One example of that is fast roaming. It means if you’re walking around the office environment or any environment where you have multiple APs, and you hand off your connection from AP to AP, you want that handoff to happen very fast, which is important if you’re doing voice over IP such as WebEx or Jabber, or any voice application, or for that matter any collaboration application or using AR or VR, which is just beginning with this next generation of cloud. These real-time type applications are very dependent on your connection remaining consistent and strong. When you’re moving around, every time you change to a new access point, you would have to do an authentication back into the network. And so we’ve been working on technologies around various standards – for example r/k/v, [802.11 r, k and v] – which allow that handoff to happen very fast.

CF: How does r/k/v accelerate that handoff?

MP: A real authentication sequence can actually take multiple seconds, which is not very good for real-time things like a call or a video call or FaceTime, or something like that. And so you want this to hand off in milliseconds, not seconds. What we’ve been doing is what we call “fast roam,” which allows you to go from AP to AP very quickly, passing the security context. What’s key here is that don’t have to go through a full reauthentication sequence, and we do some very, what I would call, smart things that include machine learning. For example, as you move further from the AP, the device …

… hunts for a neighbor or another AP that it can find and do the connection to. The process of doing that takes time. The device may see several other APs and look for the best candidate before making the switch. Now we provide a neighbors list. And that neighbors list means you don’t have to look at all the AP candidates; just look at the best candidate on the known good list. And as people move around the office, you’ll find that there’s consistency in APs that people hand off to. We prune that neighbor list to the best candidates so that you can always hand off effectively without dropping packets, which cause calls to drop.

However, when you have new protocols like this, they’re great for new devices, but they confuse old devices. What we found in 802.11.r, for example, is the exchange of information for that fast handoff will confuse a legacy or an old Wi-Fi device. And that causes the authentication sequence to not only get confused, but in many cases never connect. What we’ve done with Apple, is we recognize the Apple device and the Apple device recognizes the Cisco network, and we do those fast handoff protocols to get that better experience. And then for legacy devices, we don’t do that negotiation, so that it doesn’t confuse them. And that way your network keeps working for old devices the way it always has, and it works for new devices using these enhancements.

CF: What other capabilities will users with Wi-Fi 6 devices connecting to those Wi-Fi 6 networks notice?

MP: Another feature we’re talking about is Fast Lane. If you’re in a particular venue, you might have mission-critical applications that you want to prioritize. And if you’re in a venue that has high-density situations such as a university, a lecture hall or a stadium, or even just a crowded meeting room, IT can specify which applications are mission critical to them. For example, Cisco pretty much lives and breathes Webex in order to do business, so we prioritize the Webex application in our environment. But you might go to another venue, say a K-12 school, they may want to prioritize their classroom material. We allow you to push the policy based on the segment of the network that you’re connected to, so that you can have the experience that’s appropriate. You can do this prioritization in 802.11ac [Wi-Fi 5] as well as Wi-Fi 6.

CF: Fast Lane is just for Wi-Fi 6?

MP: Wi-Fi 6 has some special sauce. It has a pretty sophisticated new capability called OFDMA. With OFDMA, you can schedule in the frequency domain. Without getting too technical, that basically means Wi-Fi 6 is much more deterministic in its capability both in transmitting from the device and what it receives so that we can produce a better, more deterministic experience. If we can prioritize the application – as far as what traffic goes out first, based on the business need – then we can apply the scheduling capability of ODFMA to give you …

… the best user experience. That combination of capabilites means that you can give a good experience to more users concurrently, especially in high-density environments, with lower delay and higher throughput. The big news with the new iPhone 11 is Wi-Fi 6,  and a lot of the testing that we’ve done with Apple is to provide much more reliable and deterministic scheduling.

CF: So if business users don’t find the new cameras on the iPhone 11s reason enough to make them want to upgrade, maybe the Wi-Fi 6 will give some people reason to consider it, despite the lack of 5G?

MP: Oh, absolutely. Even just the rudimentary functionality in Wi-Fi 6 can demonstrate a four-times improvement in overall throughput on the network. When you look at Wi-Fi 6, it has some really fundamental differences than all previous versions of Wi-Fi. The previous versions of Wi-Fi were based on OFDM. The new OFDMA in Wi-Fi 6 means you can subdivide traffic into the frequency domain. With OFDMA, you can actually transmit multiple streams of traffic in the same time frame, because in the frequency domain, you’re separating these traffic flows and you’re taking full advantage of that transmit opportunity. And what this means is that collisions happen less often; you don’t have to contend for the network resources nearly as often. And you get that much better and more deterministic experience, such as better throughput [and so on].

CF: How important is the milestone of the certifications?

MP: Absolutely important. When you go to implement the Wi-Fi 6 specification, you might interpret that specification … different than somebody else. And so it’s very important, especially when you have different manufacturers. When you go to the Wi-Fi Alliance and you certify Wi-Fi 6, you’re saying, “This device built by Apple, and this device built by Cisco, actually work and adhere to the specification as expected.” So again, because Wi-Fi 6 is quite a bit more capable, there are fundamental changes in it even all the way down to layer one and two, because it’s now OFDM capable, interoperability becomes really important to ensure that you’re going to get the best experience. In case of Apple and Cisco, because of our alliance, we got to bootstrap that a little bit sooner. We were testing the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6 and on Apple’s implementation even before the devices were released. It’s one thing to have a device come out — and then to certify it. But at that point people are buying the device, and you can run into problems. As it turns out, since we have early access to our alliance to do the testing, we can produce a very successful integration experience between Cisco and Apple.

CF: How would you characterize the state of rollouts of Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure at this point?

MP: From an AP standpoint, I will be completely honest, it does take a little bit of time. We’ve been shipping our APs for a while now so anybody that …

… was going into refresh, we would have it available. It’s a Catch-22 because the venues only benefit as more and more devices become available. And the devices only benefit as the APs are installed. But the good news is that with Apple offering Wi-Fi 6 and Samsung, who we are partnered with as well, and Intel now putting in its ecosystem, the device ramp is looking pretty good.

CF: What’s your take on the those who wonder if there is a need to go to Wi-Fi 6, who instead are waiting for 5G networks to roll out to see if that will cover their needs?

MP: We get this question a lot and because I’ve worked on both sides of the house, with the service-provider side and on the enterprise side, and understand both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. And what I find is these two worlds are learning a lot from each other. There are different attributes in how the stacks were built. For example, 5G is good at mobility. You can be going 80 miles an hour down the road, and you can do the handoff in sub-10 milliseconds and not even notice a burp. It’s very efficient. The other thing that 5G does really well is power management. In Wi-Fi, you don’t necessarily have to optimize that because you’re never more than meters away from a Wi-Fi access point. And in Wi-Fi, which is typically deployed indoors, you don’t have people walking around and running around 80 miles an hour. So you don’t necessarily need 5G in those environments. My take on this is that you take the best of both worlds. And you start to see these heterogeneous network deployments. And as we start to make these access networks more seamless, as you move and roam between them, you care less and less.

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz has covered the IT industry for nearly three decades, most recently as editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner. Prior to that, he held various editing and writing roles at CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek and VARBusiness (now CRN) magazines, among other publications.

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