Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): A cheat sheet

Wireless speeds are about to get a lot faster thanks to the introduction of Wi-Fi 6 later this year. Learn how Wi-Fi 6 will impact business professionals and users.

Wi-Fi 6: How the next generation of home and office wireless will change your online experience Wi-Fi 6 will be faster, but it will also be more stable, have better range, and serve more devices at the same time thanks to some new and improved technologies.

WI-Fi 6, due for release later in 2019, is supposed to make Wi-Fi networks faster, more reliable, and more energy efficient than ever, but what exactly does that mean?

Wi-Fi 6 is the Wi-Fi Alliance's name for 802.11ax under its new naming scheme that is designed to make Wi-Fi generations easier to understand for the average computer user. Wi-Fi 6 will be replacing Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), which replaced Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) as the standard for Wi-Fi speed in 2013.

It's easy to get confused about what Wi-Fi 6 is and how it will improve upon older Wi-Fi standards, especially with the coming release of 5G wireless technology. With Wi-Fi 6 and 5G emerging onto the market at roughly the same time, it would make sense that they're somehow related; while both promise similar improvements, they're distinctly different technologies.

This Wi-Fi 6 cheat sheet will help dispel the confusion surrounding Wi-Fi 6, its place in our modern wireless world, and how it will be used once it's rolled out in 2019. We'll update this article when new information about Wi-Fi 6 is available. (Note: This article on Wi-Fi 6 is available to downloaded as a free PDF.)

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is the next evolution of wireless local area network (WLAN) technology. The name Wi-Fi 6 is part of a new naming convention the Wi-Fi Alliance imposed on Wi-Fi standards to make them more easily understood by Wi-Fi users, making it much like the 3G/4G/5G naming convention used by cellular data networks.

Behind the Wi-Fi 6 name is the latest version of the 802.11 wireless networking standard: 802.11ax. This new Wi-Fi standard is reportedly up to 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, but speed hasn't been the main benefit touted by the Wi-Fi Alliance and other industry experts; Wi-Fi 6 also brings lower latency, more simultaneously deliverable data, and improved power efficiency. In order to provide these changes, Wi-Fi 6 is improving on and introducing new technology.

SEE: Wireless networking policy (Tech Pro Research)

Wi-Fi 6 will be the first iteration of 802.11 to include Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which is an improvement on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM).

OFDM is used by Wi-Fi 5, 4, and older standards to encode and transmit data. In essence, OFDM allows multiple clients or access points (APs) to contend for the ability to transmit data; once the network is idle, data can be transmitted. OFDM is a popular and reliable way to decentralize access, but it has a major problem: It can lead to serious latency.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

Enter OFDMA, which makes a major change from OFDM: It puts transmission coordination in the hands of 802.11ax APs. The AP centrally schedules data transmission and is able to further divide frequencies in order to transmit data to/from multiple clients at the same time. The goal behind OFDMA is to reduce latency and increase network efficiency--especially in high-demand environments like stadiums, conference halls, and other public spaces. Because OFDMA broadcasts multiple signals at the same time, it can also increase the unit interval, which means outdoor Wi-Fi deployments will be faster and more reliable as well.

Wi-Fi 6 will extend the capabilities of Multi-User Multi-Input/Multi-Output (MU-MIMO). MU-MIMO was previously available only for downstream connections and allowed for a device to send data to multiple receivers at the same time; Wi-Fi 6 will add MU-MIMO capabilities to upstream connections as well--this will allow more simultaneous devices on one network.

Wi-Fi 6 will also:

  • Increase the number of transmit beamforming streams to eight in order to increase network range and throughput;
  • use both the 2.4 GHz and 5GHz bands simultaneously to greatly improve performance;
  • use 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation (1024-QAM) to increase throughput for emerging use cases (Wi-Fi 5 uses 256-QAM);
  • implement individual target wake time (TWT) to improve battery life and reduce power consumption for Wi-Fi devices; and
  • introduce spatial reuse technology that will allow devices to more easily access a Wi-Fi network in order to transmit data.

Check out the Wi-Fi Alliance's Wi-Fi 6 white paper for more technical details (registration required for PDF download).

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What is the difference between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G wireless?

With two next-generation wireless technologies coming in 2019, it's understandable if you're a bit confused. Are Wi-Fi 6 and 5G mobile networks related? If so, why are they both coming out now? How, if in any way, are they similar?

5G and Wi-Fi 6 promise faster speeds, less latency, and more capacity, and there's even some overlap in the technology both use, like MU-MIMO and beamforming. Those similarities aside, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 differ in two major ways: Use cases and scope of operation.

Wi-Fi 6 is a wireless local area network (WLAN) technology that is meant to operate in an office, a home, conference center, or other crowded public spaces. 5G is a wide-area network (WAN) technology that is designed for cellular data, edge computing, IoT applications, and other non-interior connections.

SEE: Must-read 5G coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Another important distinction is the differences in Wi-Fi 6 and 5G's definitions of "generation." Wi-Fi generational changes are additive--the older technology that made Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 possible still exists in Wi-Fi 6 routers, which means older devices that aren't Wi-Fi 6 compatible will still be able to use Wi-Fi 6 APs, albeit at lower Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 4 speeds.

5G is a completely new technology that isn't backwards compatible, which means that new hardware will be needed to broadcast and receive 5G signals. Existing non-5G devices won't be able to connect to 5G networks, even at lower speeds.

According to Forbes, Wi-Fi 6 will also reportedly be up to four times faster than 5G in certain use cases, so 5G isn't likely to unseat Wi-Fi 6 as the preferred method of connecting to the internet when stationary.

As for use cases, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will each have their niche, but analysts and industry experts have argued that the two will complement each other to create a larger, faster, and more accessible internet.

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What are the potential applications of Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6's use cases are various and generally reflect existing Wi-Fi use cases, albeit with improvements. The Wi-Fi Alliance mentions several use cases for Wi-Fi 6, which include:

  • IoT hardware will benefit from Wi-Fi 6 through improved battery performance, better outdoor operation, and improved range;
  • home Wi-Fi, which will be faster and more reliable thanks to increased throughput and superior coverage;
  • improved in-vehicle Wi-Fi and A/V systems thanks to reduced latency that comes with OFDMA;
  • stadiums and other public venues with Wi-Fi will see increased performance thanks to OFDMA's client transmission control and MU-MIMO's up/down capabilities; and
  • environments with multiple APs belonging to different networks (malls, airports, etc.) will have less signal interference to worry about thanks to transmit beamforming.

Wi-Fi 6 may also make wireless last-mile internet connections more plausible due to its superior speeds, ability to handle more users with less latency, and better outdoor performance.

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How can businesses take advantage of Wi-Fi 6?

The uses for Wi-Fi in the office and remote won't change much under Wi-Fi 6, outside of increased performance.

That doesn't mean Wi-Fi 6 won't be a boon to businesses--on the contrary; Wi-Fi 6's new capabilities will be felt by employees and customers in multiple ways, including:

  • 30% faster speeds will mean users are getting their content in less time;
  • increased throughput will allow more simultaneous users;
  • reduced latency means an increase in users won't necessarily kill speeds;
  • Wi-Fi 6 APs operating in areas with high signal congestion won't be as affected by it, so users will experience a more reliable connection even in crowded environments; and
  • superior outdoor service and increased range means Wi-Fi 6 networks will have fewer dead spots that interfere with both professional and customer Wi-Fi use.

Business leaders, as well as home users, shouldn't assume that it's going to be fast or easy to get the benefits of Wi-Fi 6. APs and routers that support Wi-Fi 6 should begin appearing soon, but without Wi-Fi 6 compatible devices to take advantage of all the new features, the visible improvements will be minimal.

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When will Wi-Fi 6 be available?

The Wi-Fi Alliance will begin offering Wi-Fi 6 certification for 802.11ax devices in the third quarter of 2019, but that doesn't mean Wi-Fi 6 routers won't be available sooner.

D-Link and Asus announced 802.11ax routers way back at CES 2018, and the Asus model is available for purchase now. As mentioned above, the benefits from using a Wi-Fi 6 router will be minimal until Wi-Fi 6 compatible client devices are available.

Don't rush out and buy that Asus router either--802.11ax devices available now are part of Wi-Fi 6 wave one, which includes any devices released before the Wi-Fi Alliance starts its certification process. Uncertified Wi-Fi 6 devices may lack certain features that would be industry standard for certification; as long as that certification isn't available, you don't quite know what you're buying.

If you're wondering when you'll be able to get your hands on a Wi-Fi 6 compatible smartphone or IoT device, you may have to wait even longer. Device manufacturers will need to get their hands on 802.11ax-ready chipsets like the Qualcomm WCN3998, which Qualcomm planned to start demoing to manufacturers in late 2018.

As of October 2018, the WCN3998 was still going through the certification process, which means it could be a while until manufacturers are able to start building devices based around it. Don't expect to see a Wi-Fi 6-ready smartphone until later in 2019--possibly as late as Q3--when the Wi-Fi Alliance starts certifying devices.

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