Home & Office

What is Wi-Fi 6 and why you're going to want it

No individual device on your wireless network may run that much faster, but your total speed will increase.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I have, let me see, seven Wi-Fi enabled devices currently running in my home office. That includes a tablet, a smartphone, five laptops, and a Roku streaming the last episode of Game of Thrones. That's about par. According to Parks Associates, the average home in 2017 had nine Wi-Fi equipped devices. Offices have far more. That means distributing the internet to so much gear has become a real problem. That's where Wi-Fi 6 comes in.

Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is like its predecessors, faster than the standards, which came before it. How much faster? It depends.

The new Wi-Fi standard could be between four to ten times faster than 802.11ac. That's the theory. In the real world, I expect it to be about 50% faster than the top-of-the-line networking gear you're using today. This means you'll see Gigabit speeds.

Keep in mind, though, that to see any speed increase both your client devices and your routers must be using Wi-Fi 6. When it comes to networking speeds -- from the days when we were running our networks over frozen yellow snake with speeds of less than 10Mbps to today when our datacenters run at 10 Gbps speeds -- a network is only as fast as its slowest connection.

So, yes, it will be faster, but that's not all that big a deal. Where Wi-Fi 6 really shines is in distributing your network's broadband across multiple devices. You've seen this problem yourself. You're in a large venue before anyone is there and you've got plenty of bandwidth. But, as it fills up, your bandwidth drops to a slow crawl for an arthritic turtle.

Yes, part of the problem is you're sharing the backbone internet connection with more people, but another major part of it is that the current generation of Wi-Fi routers can't handle connecting efficiently to four or more devices at once. They can handle far more -- and they do -- but your device has to wait in a virtual line once there are more than four gadgets making a connection at once. Wi-Fi 6 doubles that to eight simultaneous connections by making better use Multi-User-Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) technology than earlier standard devices.

Wi-Fi 6 also makes good use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (ODMFA), With earlier approaches, a Wi-Fi channel is kept open until your data transmission is completed. This leaves a lot of devices standing around waiting for their chance. With OFDMA, these channels are divided up into many smaller sub-channels. The net result is instead of lingering around for the next available channel, as many as 30 clients can share a channel instead of taking turns. 

What that means for you and your network is you're much less likely to see network delays because of congestion. So, instead of seeing your speeds collapse when more people are hooking into the network, Wi-Fi 6 can handle the load much more gracefully.

I like the idea of how Wi-Fi 6 will help in my networked home office. But where it's really going to be worth the money is for any business supporting dense device environments, such as convention centers, hotels, schools, and stadiums. If that's your kind of company, start setting aside some capital budget for upgrading your wireless network infrastructure today. Wi-Fi 6 is an essential upgrade for these businesses.

Besides helping you personally, OFDMA enables low-bandwidth requests to transmit in parallel. This means you get reduced latency and jitter. As we depend ever more on networking for video and the Internet of Things (IoT) this will help both of those technologies live up to their potential.

IoT users will also benefit from a new feature called Target Wake Time (TWT). With this, routers can schedule check-in times. This will enable IoT devices to use less power since they won't be constantly maintaining their net connections.

Put it all together and you want to start getting ready to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6. That said, don't be in too much of a hurry. Wait until the technology is fully baked. Sure, as ABI Research Senior Analyst Andrew Zignani noted "Wi-Fi 6 pre-standard chipsets are readily available from numerous vendors including Broadcom, Qualcomm, Marvell, Quantenna, Intel, and Celenom," but they are "pre-standard." The Wi-Fi 6 standard hasn't been nailed down yet. It will be completed later this year.

Today's devices will probably work with their draft Wi-Fi 6 firmware, but you may not want to spend money on "probably." Still, some Wi-Fi 6 routers are already available. These include the Asus RT-AX88U Dual Band 802.11ax Wi-Fi Router, Netgear Nighthawk AX8 (RAX80), and TP-Link Archer AX6000.

In any case, to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6, your client equipment needs to be ready to support it. Today, that's only a handful of devices. The next generation of PCs with Intel Ice Lake processors and smartphones with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processors are still quarters away from the mass market.

But, by year's end or the beginning of 2020, you will want want to move to Wi-Fi 6. It will be a game changer.  

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