This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Wi-Fi technology has transformed the way people communicate and operate. It is the principal medium for Internet traffic across the world. Whether through individuals, corporations, or institutions, a great deal of human activity happens online.
Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, refers to the sixth generation of wireless network technology. This new standard offers a substantial improvement over prior generations. Wi-Fi 6 is designed for dense environments, such as stadiums, airports, shopping centers, trains, offices, and other high-traffic areas, which have very high bandwidth demands.
One of the key objectives for Wi-Fi 6 was to enable Wi-Fi to perform better with multiple devices. Today, Wi-Fi 6 is the preferred standard for Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN).
Based on the wireless networking standard 802.11, developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Wi-Fi technology has improved significantly over the past decade. Each generation of Wi-Fi has brought enhancements in speeds, capacity, latency, and overall user experience.
Wi-Fi 6 was introduced as 801.11ax in 2019. Later on, the nonprofit industry association Wi-Fi Alliance decided to rename the standards in order to make it easier for users to know which standard is newer. In 2021, Wi-Fi Alliance ratified Wi-Fi 6.
Improving existing standards with Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi 6 offers a number of benefits, including high performance in dense environments, more capacity, higher data rates, and — in some cases — more efficient power consumption. With these advantages, Wi-Fi 6 is a powerful enabling standard for many fields.
Big beneficiaries of Wi-Fi 6 include the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, enterprise networks, AR/ VR, video streaming, online gaming, home entertainment networks, remote work, and telepresence. Improvements in Wi-Fi technology have made these benefits possible.
Wi-Fi 6 has the following capabilities:
Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) enables sharing of channels by dividing them into small segments, thereby giving each client a dedicated portion of bandwidth. This helps to improve network efficiency and to reduce latency for uplink and downlink data traffic in environments with numerous devices.
Multi-user Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology facilitates transfer of more data at once, by enabling access points to operate more devices at the same time. Wi-Fi 5 had MU-MIMO capability for downloads only. With Wi-Fi 6, MU-MIMO works for both uploads and downloads.
Better Bandwidth: Another improvement is that channel width has been increased to 160 MHz on the 5GHz band. This increases bandwidth capacity, which contributes to enhanced performance and lower latency. In comparison, channel width is just 40MHz on the 2.4GHz band.
Beamforming technology has also been improved with Wi-Fi 6. This is a method of transmitting data. The router identifies the location of the data-requesting device and transmits the data in that direction instead of transmitting it in all directions. This helps to increase speeds.
Key benefits of Wi-Fi 6
How does all of this provide a better overall experience to individual users? Some of the benefits will be essentially transparent to individual users. And just because Wi-Fi 6 offers certain capabilities, there's no guarantee that maximum benchmarks will always be achieved in every public or private setting.
With that said, here's where the improvements discussed above will have the most impact on performance:
Enhanced Reliability and Delivery in Device-Rich Environments — Wi-Fi 6 has the potential to deliver optimal connectivity for each connected device at public venues where there are hundreds, or even thousands, of devices in use simultaneously. This includes public hubs like airports and libraries, as well as corporate settings crammed with high-priority, high-bandwidth applications.
Wi-Fi 6 enables transmission of more bits at once. Any information that is transmitted or stored on a computer must first be encoded into a sequence of bits. The Wi-Fi standard employs the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) technique to transmit bits. With Wi-Fi 5, which uses 512 QAM, 8 bits can be transmitted at a time. Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024 QAM, which enables transmission of 10 bits at once.
Faster Speeds — Wi-Fi 6 has the capacity to support better connection speeds. It offers a maximum of 9.6 Gbps throughput, at least theoretically. More bandwidth means faster uploads and downloads. Wi-Fi 5 is capable of a maximum of 3.5 Gbps.
This doesn’t mean that Wi-Fi 6 devices will necessarily operate at 9.6 Gbps all the time. Local networks don’t always reach the maximum speed. Wi-Fi 6-capable devices can, however, achieve faster speeds than those with Wi-Fi 5, depending on networking techniques. To achieve faster speeds with Wi-Fi 6, you need to connect to a router that is compatible with 802.11ax. Also, your devices need to be equipped with a specific Wi-Fi 6 antenna.
More Robust Security — Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is the network security protocol that is commonly used on Wi-Fi networks. A Wi-Fi network secured with WPA requires the user to provide a password. WPA2 has been in use for several years now and it is still the most widely-used encryption on Wi-Fi networks.
Wi-Fi 6 includes an additional layer of security. The Dragonfly Key Exchange system or Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) authentication technique incorporates more intricate encryption, thereby rendering passwords more difficult to break.
Longer Battery Life — Wi-Fi 6 enables efficient communication scheduling on sensors and smart devices, including smartphones. Target Wake Time (TWT) makes it possible to schedule sleep and wake time on smart devices.
Thanks to TWT, devices don’t have to use up energy searching for a wireless signal repeatedly. The device will be activated only when scheduled to be awake. As communication will happen only on schedule, TWT has the potential to increase battery life on some devices.
Laptop users may not need all the enhancements that Wi-Fi 6 offers. But it can be useful for devices that typically don’t communicate continuously over long periods, such as smart devices at home or sensors.
The transition to Wi-Fi 6 is underway
Wi-Fi 6 and 6E products are widely available today. More and more consumers and corporations are switching to Wi-Fi 6. Business intelligence firm IDC estimates that 79 percent of Wi-Fi product shipments in 2022 will be WiFi 6 capable. By 2025, Wi-Fi 6 product shipments are expected to touch 5.2 billion.
According to a Wi-Fi Alliance press release, market penetration of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E has reached 50 percent in just three years. That’s faster than Wi-Fi 5, which took four years to get to 50 percent. Wi-Fi Alliance expects 2.3 billion Wi-Fi 6 units to be shipped in 2022. Of this, 350 million are likely to be Wi-Fi 6E capable.
A number of factors have driven the unprecedented growth in the adoption of Wi-Fi 6:
The promise of faster speeds is not the only reason behind the rapid pace of adoption. An upsurge in the number of IoT devices is driving demand for high-quality Wi-Fi. The IoT segment, which was largely dependent on Wi-Fi 4 in 2.4 GHz, is seeing an uptick in adoption of Wi-Fi 6 because it is capable of supporting multiple devices with varying Internet traffic needs and energy consumption.
Wi-Fi Alliance says impetus in three areas is accelerating the shift to Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. These areas are:
Product growth: Consumers and businesses are enthusiastic about the advanced capabilities of Wi-Fi 6. Growing demand for high-performance Wi-Fi from PC, smartphone, and tablet users has driven product vendors to ramp up production of WiFi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E capable devices.
There are now a host of Wi-Fi 6-enabled laptops, smartphones, and smart televisions, as well as routers that support Wi-Fi 6, available for consumers and enterprises. Wi-Fi Alliance forecasts that Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E will cross 80 percent market share and will corner the smartphone segment.
Deployment: Service providers are responding with alacrity to the substantial increase in the number of smart home devices and growing demand for high-speed, efficient, reliable, and high-capacity networks by deploying Wi-Fi 6E gateways to deliver speed and capacity to subscribers.
Potential benefits of Wi-Fi 6E for customers include improved upload and download speeds, lower network saturation, and enhanced network performance for remote work and home entertainment. Encouraged by the high-speed connectivity and low latency potential of Wi-Fi 6E, healthcare and educational establishments are implementing Wi-Fi 6E networks in order to achieve optimal delivery of mission-critical services and applications.
Regulatory push: In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened its 6GHz band for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed use. Many other countries have opened or are thinking of opening 6GHz for Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi Alliance has extended its Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6™ program into 6GHz. Wi-Fi 6 devices that operate in the 6GHz spectrum have Wi-Fi 6E certification. According to Wi-Fi Alliance, more than 3000 connected devices have been Wi-Fi 6 certified of which more than 400 are Wi-Fi 6E certified.
The near future outlook for Wi-Fi 6
As already discussed, Wi-Fi 6 adoption is increasing at an unmatched pace. Demand for deployment of WiFi 6 on enterprise networks is robust because time-sensitive enterprise applications require high bandwidth, reliability, and security.
Wi-Fi 6 has enabled many organizations to accommodate increasing bandwidth demands and improve communication range. With Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, organizations can also support 4K/8K video technology as well as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This makes Wi-Fi 6 useful for all-wireless offices, remote support for field work, as well as virtual teamwork, training, and meetings.
The outlook for Wi-Fi 6 looks promising. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E products are capable of utilizing the advantages that open unlicensed frequencies, such as the 6GHz spectrum offer. Wi-Fi Alliance expects increasing adoption of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E products to bring about innovation and advanced connectivity experiences.