A New Approach to Wireless Networking

The 802.11ax standard reinvents wireless for today's needs around IoT and cloud.
  • by Melissa Delaney
  • Freelance journalist who specializes in business technology |

For two decades, new versions of the IEE 802.11 wireless networking standard have delivered greater speed and better reliability than their predecessors. The latest version of the standard to hit the mainstream, 802.11ax, also called Wi-Fi 6, is no exception. Devices running this standard at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show reached 11 gigabits per second. But rather than just improving upon existing technology, 802.11ax is a complete upgrade.

“It’s a rethink of how Wi-Fi works,” says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. “It’s not just a faster version of the older one. It’s actually taking a different approach.”

It’s a technology whose time has come. The 802.11ax standard delivers better connectivity, more throughput, better battery life and a better overall experience for users. So, while some business leaders continue to underestimate the value of their networks, they won’t be able to do so for much longer. New use cases that involve mobile devices, cloud computing and the Internet of Things are making Wi-Fi 6 an indispensable standard.  

“With older versions of Wi-Fi, the assumption was that we lived in a wired-first world, and Wi-Fi was really more a network of convenience,” Kerravala says. “Today I think the assumption is that it’s not just convenient; it’s mandatory. Businesses need to consider their Wi-Fi networks among their most important assets.”

It’s not just that the number of networked devices increased, says Newsha Sharifzadeh, senior global product marketing manager with Aruba Networks. There’s been an explosion in terms of the diversity of devices — laptops, smartphones, Internet of things (IoT) sensors and so on — as well as the applications utilizing networks.

User expectations have soared as well. “Five years ago, if the voice dropped in the middle of a Skype call and we had to call back three times, we would have been fine with it because that was expected,” Sharifzadeh says. “But our expectations have gone up.”

4x to 10x

The greater speed of 802.11ax networking hardware over previous Wi-Fi devices

Source: Network World, “Why 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) is the next big thing in Wi-Fi,” October 2018

Wi-Fi 6 in the Workplace

Corporate use cases for Wi-Fi 6 range from airports providing more reliable wireless to stadiums encouraging fans to connect to Wi-Fi for enhanced experiences.

Workers controlling a robot arm on a factory floor can’t afford to worry about dropped packets, so organizations go to great lengths to ensure throughput. “With Wi-Fi 6, this becomes much easier because it’s part of the overall protocol,” says Cisco’s Matthew McPherson.

Wi-Fi 6 can even support applications such as virtual reality, adds Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research. For example, some retailers are interested in virtual showrooms in which customers wear headsets around the store.


Game Changer

Overloaded networks are a common problem as the number of devices and users has grown. Since many people use two or three devices at any given time — and IoT devices are everywhere — even small companies can struggle to accommodate the number of clients accessing their networks, Sharifzadeh says.

The most talked about feature in Wi-Fi 6, orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), addresses this challenge by accommodating multiple clients on the same channel at the same time. It builds upon multiuser multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO), a feature in 802.11ac Wave 2 that allows up to four clients at a time to connect to an access point. But MU-MIMO works only with downlink connections. Wi-Fi 6, however, works with both uplinks and downlinks.

Earlier standards were developed at a time when most users were consumers rather than generators of online resources, so wireless networks focused on downloads. Wi-Fi 6, however, was built around the reality that today’s wireless users frequently upload data to the cloud and social media and IoT devices constantly transmit data.

In the past, a network would dedicate a channel to one packet at a time, even if the packet was small and the channel could accommodate more. So, each packet would have to wait for its own transmission opportunity. MU-MIMO divided bandwidth into four streams that could access the connection simultaneously. But packets still had to wait in one of those four lines. OFDMA, however, divides channels into subcarriers that are positioned orthogonally — at 90-degree angles — so that they can fit multiple streams of data in a single transmission.

“You can fill up the transmit opportunity in that time slice,” says Matthew McPherson, a senior systems engineer and solutions architect at Cisco Systems. “That means your collisions go way down and your delay and throughput become very consistent.”

Wi-Fi 6 delivers four times more throughput for all clients in a dense environment, Sharifzadeh says. It provides the greatest benefit for applications such as IoT, voice and instant messaging, which use small packets. “It’s perfect for latency-sensitive applications, because there’s no delay,” she says.

Power Play

In addition to the higher densities and reduced latency due to OFDMA, Wi-Fi 6 also provides dramatically improved battery life.

Since clients get on and off the network faster, radios aren’t used to transmit as long, so they consume less power, explains McPherson. A new feature in Wi-Fi 6 called Target Wake Time (TWT) takes power efficiency even further. 

With traditional connectivity over Wi-Fi, radios stay connected with their batteries active. TWT puts the radio to sleep and signals it back on when it’s needed without the user noticing a difference. “We’re talking milliseconds, but milliseconds repeated over hours actually makes a big difference,” says Kerravala.

This feature can improve battery life by as much as 30 to 40 percent. “It can be a big operational savings when you have thousands of IoT devices and you have to change their batteries less frequently,” says Sharifzadeh.

What’s Available When?

Wi-Fi 6 is still in its infancy and its product offerings are limited primarily to access points that hit the market in 2018, including Aruba Networks’ 510, 530 and 550 and Cisco’s Catalyst 9000 line. But organizations can begin transitioning to the new standard, especially if they’re due for upgrades. “It makes no sense to not do Wi-Fi 6,” says Kerravala.

Even devices that aren’t equipped with the new standard will be able to take advantage of some of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6. “So, organizations will make a few small improvements now, and then they’ll get more benefits when the other clients are available,” says Kerravala.

In addition to access points, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 smartphone is Wi-Fi 6 compatible. Other manufacturers, including Intel, have been working to bring new devices to market. “We expect the ramp up to be pretty quick,” McPherson says. “We're expecting some additional major players to announce their device compatibility. Then, going into new year, we expect Wi-Fi 6 to really explode.”

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