What is new and different with Wi-Fi 6?

Well, first let’s start with what is still the same – there are still the traditional Wi-Fi clients and access points (APs) which they connect to. Physically, the hardware for Wi-Fi 6 is actually pretty similar, so device manufacturers can lean on the antenna design experience they have gained from previous generations of Wi-Fi. Even the battery consumption of new Wi-Fi 6 chipsets is only expected to increase during times of continuous high-data transfers, but only because the data rate is actually higher. As for the network deployment, not much has changed either – remember and follow your best practices of AP positioning (not too far, not directly above/below, staggered, etc.), run your Ethernet cabling as you normally would, and wire all Wi-Fi APs to your network switch (more on switch options below). Because Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible, any legacy Wi-Fi clients on the network won’t even know the difference after a network upgrade.

Now, let’s talk about what is different – which is basically everything!

Wi-Fi 6 is the biggest update to Wi-Fi, ever! Starting with the name. Wi-Fi is undergoing a much needed and surprisingly sensible rebranding right now – from being called 802.11 something something…we cannot really relate to or care for, to simple number generations. Wi-Fi 6 would have been called 802.11ax as the IEEE standard it is based on, but the number generations are much better suited for marketing, labeling, and easy identification of Wi-Fi devices. 802.11ax also known as “high-efficiency wireless” will be commonly referred to as Wi-Fi 6. Looking backwards to older Wi-Fi standards – 802.11ac now becomes Wi-Fi 5, 802.11n will now be referred to as Wi-Fi 4 and so on. This is a new naming standard set by the Wi-Fi Alliance. With the new naming convention, these new Wi-Fi icons (below) have also been introduced to easily label and identify Wi-Fi devices.

Wi-Fi 4 = 802.11n
Wi-Fi 5 = 802.11ac
Wi-Fi 6 = 802.11ax

Don’t worry too much about the new naming convention because the backward compatible aspect of this technology makes connectivity of various Wi-Fi devices pretty easy. However, older Wi-Fi client devices are stuck with the bandwidth limitations of their built-in chipsets (hardware) even though they are compatible to connect to new Wi-Fi APs such as Wi-Fi 6. While plenty of Wi-Fi 6 routers are already available with chipsets using draft specifications, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) wasn’t fully finalized until September 2019 when the Wi-Fi 6 certification was made official.

Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 is the industry certification program based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard

Going back to Wi-Fi network deployment – it is actually not quite the same…Because Wi-Fi 6 handles a lot more clients and more cluttered environments better, you might not actually need as many APs to handle more client connection, which is nice. However, new Wi-Fi 6 APs could be handling Gigabits of data per second across literally hundreds of Wi-Fi clients, meaning that your standard 10/100 Mbps switch isn’t going to cut it anymore. You would also need to upgrade the Ethernet infrastructure in networks where Wi-Fi 6 is supported – with Gigabit switches becoming a minimum requirement for these networks. For such building or industrial automation applications, you can start getting ready and pick up some of our robust Skorpion Gigabit Ethernet switches here.

Housed in a rugged metal enclosure with 24 VAC/VDC power input, DIN-rail mounted with industrial environment EMC and UL 508 listed, the Skorpion Ethernet switch series includes models with 5 and 8 ports of Gigabit Ethernet

Why care for Wi-Fi 6?

Technically, Wi-Fi 6 will have a single-user data rate that is 37% faster than 802.11ac, but what’s more significant is that the updated specification will offer four times the throughput per user in crowded environments such as airports, train stations, campuses, stadiums, etc. Wi-Fi 6 is anticipated to have a tremendous impact in these cluttered areas where networks are highly congested, in addition it will ultimately also aid in laying a foundation for the number of nodes expected from the rise of the IoT. To achieve these improvements, 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) implements a variety of changes including several multi-user technologies which have been borrowed from cellular technology – namely MU-MIMO (Multi User – Multiple Input and Multiple Output) and OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) – techniques that greatly improve capacity and performance by enabling more simultaneous connections and a more thorough use of spectrum. With more spectrum available, Wi-Fi 6 can split the bandwidth into narrower (more) sub-channels, creating more avenues for clients and access points to communicate along with enabling support for additional devices on any given network. Wi-Fi 6 has some truly game-changing features when it comes to multi-user performance. Wi-Fi 6 access points can be configured with up to an 8×8 antenna configuration (8×8:8-stream MU-MIMO + OFDMA) – that is 8 for transmitting and 8 for receiving. This allows the support of up to 8 concurrent downlink streams with MU-MIMO, a huge increase of this spec from the 4 concurrent downlink streams of Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). This “widening of the highway” is a big part of what will make generation 6 so critical to making Wi-Fi usable in sports arenas, concert halls, campuses, airports, etc. Another ground-breaking improvement has been in scheduling of transitions – yes scheduling a data transmition in the computing world usually means increased latency – which is actually one of the biggest issues with Wi-Fi today. However, in practice this improvement means less collision mitigation – think of it as a perfectly executed zipper merge on the highway which will actually reduce latency.

Brief technical specification comparison between the last 3 generations of Wi-Fi

User benefits of Wi-Fi 6:

  • Higher data rates – more overall bandwidth per user for ultra-HD and virtual reality streaming
  • Increased capacity – support for more simultaneous streams of data with increased throughput
  • More total spectrum (2.4GHz and 5GHz, eventually bands in 1GHz and 6GHz when they become available)
  • Spectrum split into more channels to enable more routes for communication
  • Better performance/robustness in outdoor and multi-path (cluttered) environments with many connected client nodes such as stadiums, campuses, airports, train stations, etc.
  • Packets contain more data and networks can handle different data streams at once
  • Handles the ever-increasing demand for faster multi-user data rates
  • Improved performance (as much as 4x) at the maximum range of an access point
  • Improved power efficiency

Wi-Fi 6 promises an amazing online experience. While it is backward compatible to older Wi-Fi client devices, you will have to wait a little bit to fully experience its benefits because client devices must also support Wi-Fi 6 features for full compatibility. The good news is that those devices are already showing up!

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