Wi-Fi 6 is coming, but before it becomes the standard, businesses and system integrators need to understand the key benefits and challenges if they hope for widespread adoption.
How is Wi-Fi 6 different from 5G and from past versions of Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi has become so commonplace around the world that consumers have come to expect it everywhere they go. Cafés without public Wi-Fi are a relic of the past and the quickest way to scare away potential customers. Trying to find a mobile device without Wi-Fi is next to impossible. And we’ve all felt the frustration of shoddy Wi-Fi connectivity - constantly buffering video, channel interference, and pages that take forever to load all show that a user’s experience on the web is only as good as their internet connection.
Make no mistake: Wi-Fi standards have improved dramatically over the last two decades, but there’s still massive room for advancement.
That’s where Wi-Fi 6 comes in. Still in its infancy, Wi-Fi 6 is the latest update to everyone’s favorite wireless technology. Not only will it help devices achieve higher data transfer speeds, it will bring several unique enhancements to network technology that designers are itching to implement.
Once upon a time, keeping track of Wi-Fi versions was as difficult deciphering hieroglyphics. Past versions of Wi-Fi had names that described the IEEE standard they adopted, such as 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and so on. While Wi-Fi 6 adopts the 802.11ax standard, it also comes with a much more consumer-friendly name. It’s important to note that 802.11ax and Wi-Fi 6 are interchangeable. If you see an article mentioning 802.11ax, it means the same as Wi-Fi 6.
What are the main features of Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 brings several key new features to the table that will change the way consumers interact with the web. In addition to faster speeds and reduced latency, Wi-Fi 6 will also dramatically increase the capacity of devices that can connect to a network at once. Here are the features that enable these enhancements:
OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access): Increases both overall network capacity and allows for less delay and contention on a network. This makes the technology better-optimized for use-cases such as VoIP and time-sensitive industrial automation.
MU-MIMO (Multiple-User, Multiple-In, Multiple-Out) & Transmit Beamforming: MIMO refers to the technique of using multiple antennas to form radio signals into “beams”. This exists in previous versions of Wi-Fi, but is now standardized to allow simultaneous beams to be supported by one access point.
1024-QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation mode): A new RF modulation enhancement which increases Wi-Fi 6 throughput speeds by up to 25%.
BSS Coloring: A technique for dense network deployments which allows multiple access points and devices to use the same RF channels with less interference and higher capacity.
Target Wait Time: A mechanism by which Wi-Fi clients and access points can pre-negotiate to schedule future connection timings, allowing the devices’ radios to remain idle. It will be important for IoT devices where ongoing connectivity is non-essential.
What are the benefits of Wi-Fi 6?
Thanks to the new features listed above, there are three key benefits that users can take advantage of by using a Wi-Fi 6 enabled device on a compatible network:
Faster Data Throughput
Like most evolutions in wireless technology, one of the key benefits of Wi-Fi 6 is faster download and upload speeds. For instance, if you’re using a Wi-Fi router with one device, potential speeds could be up to 40% higher with Wi-Fi 6 compared to Wi-Fi 5.
Better Battery Life
Target Wait Time will allow smartphones, laptops, and other Wi-Fi 6 enabled devices to benefit from longer lasting battery life. When an access point connects to a device, it can tell it exactly when to put its radio to sleep and when to wake it up to receive its next transmission. This conserves power by allowing the Wi-Fi radio to spend more time in sleep mode. As mentioned above, this will also help with low-power IoT devices that connect via Wi-Fi.
Higher Capacity in Dense Networks
As Wi-Fi has become increasingly commonplace in devices found in the home, neighborhoods often suffer from channel interference from a high number of signals obstructing each other. The issue is also common in offices, shopping malls, and other dense networks.
Luckily, Wi-Fi 6 dramatically increases the number of devices that can simultaneously connect to one network. Once the technology becomes the global standard, channel interference will become a thing of the past. Users can expect less lag and dropped connections in areas with many connected devices.
Wi-Fi 6 will also bring new opportunities to businesses in the enterprise sector, especially with wide scale 5G adoption also in process.
What are the challenges of designing Wi-Fi 6 networks?
Like any new wireless technology, Wi-Fi 6 brings its own set of challenges to enterprises and operators looking to upgrade their network. Experts can anticipate and predict potential problems that might occur during design or deployment, but Wi-Fi 6 will also introduce as-yet unforeseen obstacles that will only reveal themselves in a post-deployment landscape.
Nonetheless, here are two issues that will need to be addressed before wide scale Wi-Fi 6 adoption becomes the norm:
To take advantage of the benefits offered by Wi-Fi 6, it requires technology that can support the spectrum. This has cost implications not only to consumers that need to upgrade their devices and routers, but also to operators and system integrators needing to upgrade a public Wi-Fi network (such as an airport or shopping mall).
That means the challenge of evolving hardware will make the timing tricky for network operators who want to launch Wi-Fi 6 capable networks. It’s a sizable investment to overhaul the network infrastructure, and unless users have devices capable of benefiting from these enhancements, it won’t be particularly valuable until they do. But that shouldn’t discourage engineers from upgrading public networks to Wi-Fi 6. The bottom line is that Wi-Fi 6 is on the horizon, and operators would do well to be prepared in advance of the demand.
Internet of Things (IoT) Restrictions and Competition
One of the key use-cases anticipated for Wi-Fi 6 are IoT enabled smart devices. While home automation and point of sale devices often operate through Wi-Fi, diversity in the IoT market is expanding.
5G, Zigbee, BlueTooth and others already take a share of the IoT market, and without key enterprise security features in Wi-Fi IoT devices, fragmentation in the industry will continue to lead to fragmentation in device type adoption. Network designers should be aware of the competitors in the market, as it’s not yet a sure thing that Wi-Fi 6 will become the technology of choice within the IoT industry.
When will Wi-Fi 6 be commercially available?
In September 2019, the Wi-Fi alliance officially certified Wi-Fi 6 for commercial use. While the standard is now official, the technology will still require Wi-Fi 6 capable equipment and devices in order to take advantage of the benefits offered.
The good news is that OEMs and device manufacturers are already launching Wi-Fi 6 enabled devices. Apple’s Iphone 11 is Wi-Fi 6 capable, and several Android mobile devices are also supported. Before you rush out to purchase one of these next-generation gadgets, make sure you also have a Wi-Fi 6 enabled router.
It’s also important to understand that unless you have a gigabit-per-second internet connection, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to achieve the data speeds promised in Wi-Fi 6. That said, it’s never too early to ensure your network and devices are capable of handling the extra capacity and demand in public spaces that’s becoming increasingly expected around the world.
How can I design better Wi-Fi networks?
First, get up to speed on the fundamentals of Wi-Fi design in a variety of use-cases. You may not be planning to design Wi-Fi networks for retail environments, but the design principles therein will prepare you for the challenges of designing optimized networks for any situation. The same is true of Wi-Fi design in the hospitality sector.
Once you feel comfortable with the basics, you can move on to our in-depth ebook all about Wi-Fi 6. When you’re ready to start designing your Wi-Fi 6 network, print out our reference poster for easy access to crucial information like signal characteristics and sub-carrier numbers.