22 years ago (in 1997) the first base IEEE 802.11 standard (currently known as “WiFi”) was released to the world.
Since then, the standard has gone through a number of developments and enhancements to cover the needs of users who are hungry for fast wireless connectivity (in home networks, offices, workplaces, public areas etc).
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It’s important to note that the official IEEE standard for wireless Local Area Network (LAN) communication is known as 802.11 with various sub-naming designations such as 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac etc.
The term “Wi-Fi” is simply the marketing (trademark) name which encompasses all of the above technical standard terms from IEEE institute.
Let’s see a table with some important technical characteristics and features of each 802.11 standard before discussing the newest 802.11ax version.
Standard Designation Release Year Frequency Band Data Rate (Max) Approx. Range (Indoor) Comments 802.11a 1999 5 Ghz 54 Mbps 115 ft Never used commercially 802.11b 1999 2.4 Ghz 11 Mbps 115 ft Actual first useable standard 802.11g 2003 2.4 Ghz 54 Mbps 125 ft 802.11n 2009 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz 600 Mbps 230 ft First dual band standard 802.11ac 2013 5 Ghz 3.47 Gbps 120-150 ft All AC routers include also a 2.4Ghz radio (802.11n) 802.11ax Est. 2019 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz concurrently 14 Gbps Better than AC Successor of AC (to be released in 2019) 802.11ad 2012 60 Ghz 6.7 Gbps 11 ft Not widely used 802.11ay Est.2020 60 Ghz 20 Gbps 33 ft Successor of AD
The most widely used wireless LAN standard at the time of this writing is 802.11ac which will be replaced by the new generation 802.11ax in the near future. This new generation of Wi-Fi is estimated to be officially finalized by the end of 2019.
As it is obvious from the table above, there are so many confusing acronyms and technical naming conventions so the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to simplify the IEEE standards above and give them more user-friendly names as shown below:
You must have in mind that the newest WiFi 6 will be backwards compatible with the older standards so even if you buy one of the new 802.11ax routers all of your home wireless clients will still work fine.
The new WiFi6 has the aspiration of becoming the new mainstream wireless LAN standard with wide commercial, user and vendor support.
To achieve the above goal, the new protocol will try to solve or minimize the following problems found in current WLAN networks:
The most important problem that the new AX standard will try to solve is better performance in high-density environments (congested areas) such as airports, home networks with many devices, Internet of Things (IoT) environments etc.
Especially the latter one (IoT) will be a rapidly evolved field thus WiFi 6 will prepare the networks for supporting so many wireless connected clients.
Here are some unique and new features that 802.11ax will provide (there are much more offered by the standard but I’m listing some important ones only):
Let’s discuss briefly each of the above unique features:
This technology is borrowed from the successful 4G LTE mobile communications technology. In a nutshell, each connected client to the wifi router will use sub-channels within the main overall Wi-Fi channel itself thus multiple client devices can transmit data to and from the router simultaneously.
This means that each client device will not have to wait for a clear channel before sending data, and will not have to worry about collisions in the wireless physical channel. Therefore, in dense environments OFDMA will allow multiple client devices to efficiently use the wireless channel resources.
In current 802.11ac standard, the technology of MU-MIMO (Multiple Users Multiple Input Multiple Output) is well supported especially in wave2 clients and routers.
However, current MU-MIMO is only uni-directional (downlink only).
Bi-directional MU-MIMO in 802.11ax will support up to 8 simultaneous users in downlink direction and up to 8 simultaneous users in uplink direction (client to router).
Modern home networks have a lot of uplink traffic. Sharing photos and videos on social media, uploading backup data to the cloud, video streaming from local cameras to the cloud etc. Therefore, this specific feature will enhance user experience and speed by many factors.
What you should know in wireless communications, the higher the frequency the more data rate can flow through the channel.
Although 160Mhz channels are also available in AC standard, in AX standard with 1024 QAM modulation the 160Mhz channel feature is supposed to further enhance data throughput by around 25%.
Note however that you must have a suitable client wifi device that supports AX as well.
This is another characteristic that will help a lot in RF-dense environments (and by “RF-dense” we don’t only mean having many client devices in the same WLAN but also having many different Access Points (wifi routers) in the same area although belonging in different networks e.g in a dense neighborhood, multi-apartment buildings etc).
If let’s say your wireless router operates in the same frequency spectrum and channel as your neighbor (something very common), your smartphone or laptop will receive interference from the neighbor’s smartphones and laptops and this will affect the quality of communication.
With Spacial Frequency Reuse, simultaneous transmissions of both your own devices and your neighbor’s devices will be permitted by adjusting the power output of the device so that it won’t interfere with the other devices.
This one has to do with lower battery (power) consumption by using 802.11ax.
Basically the Access Point (router) and client devices will negotiate and define a specific time schedule to access the wireless medium. The rest of the time, the client device will be sleeping (in terms of radio wifi connectivity). This will reduce battery consumption significantly.
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) has been the defacto standard offering security and encryption in wifi wireless networks. The original security mechanisms for wifi were WPA and WEP which suffer from serious security vulnerabilities and are not used any more.
The current protocol is WPA2 which is fairly secure (especially if you use a long and complex SSID security key) and is used extensively in current 802.11 networks.
Although WPA2 (released in 2004) is currently pretty good in terms of security, it started to become old since better and more efficient security protocols were introduced recently.
There are some notable improvements of WPA3 which will be the preferred security protocol of WiFi6. These features include individualized data encryption, brute-force attack protection, simplified connection of devices without display, 192-bit security suite etc.
When the new standard will become mainstream and widely adopted, many people will be curious to know the similarities and differences between wifi5 and wifi6. Let’s discuss some of them below:
In theory, the maximum throughput (wireless speed between your client devices and router) in 802.11ax will be around 14Gbps.
How this is derived? If we assume that 160Mhz channels are used with 44 MIMO streams, this equals to 43.5Gbps = 14Gbps. This is only in theory though and your client devices must be capable (hardware wise) of 44 MIMO in order to support the above.
The above max speed is around four times faster than current speeds of 802.11ac standard.
When we discuss coverage range of wireless technology, this is something you can’t assign a number to it.
Range in WLAN networks is a relative factor and depends on many things such as environmental conditions, structure of house, thickness and materials of walls etc.
The expectation of scientists developing this IEEE standard is that it will offer a small enhancement in range compared to existing standards not because there will be a specific boost in antennas or hardware but mainly because of the other technologies of Wi-Fi 6 that will reduce interference and increase performance in dense networks.
The above improvements will most likely result in a slight increase in wireless range.
Many well-known manufacturers are early adopters of WiFi6 technology. New router models are being manufactured and launched as we speak. Here are all the available models in the market as of now:
Overall, like everything new in technology, the new Wi-Fi generation (WiFi6) will be an advancement in the right direction. However, it’s still in early stages and support from manufacturers will expand a lot in 2019 (both from chipset manufacturers like Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm etc and also from WiFi manufacturers like Netgear, Asus, Linksys etc).