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Brave new wireless: 802.11ax Wi-Fi promises big LAN changes
Shakespeare didn't have wireless LANs in mind when he wrote The Tempest, but the promises of 802.11ax Wi-Fi leave us paraphrasing it:
O, wonder! / How many goodly [features] are / there here! / How beauteous [ax] is! O brave / new [wireless], / that has such [efficiency] in't!
As a wireless end user with a predilection to Instagram Red Sox games and Beyonce concerts, I'm particularly excited about the orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) feature. While it doesn't roll off the tongue like the lyrics of "Single Ladies," OFDMA should be a crowd-pleasing hit in high-density environments.
Experts say OFDMA puts the "high-efficiency" in high-efficiency Wi-Fi by allowing access points (APs) to multitask and serve multiple clients at once. After an 802.11ax Wi-Fi upgrade, previously overrun 802.11n or 802.11ac APs could theoretically manage heavy user loads with aplomb. (No more #latergrams.) OFDMA marries faster speeds with new network smarts, arguably the most substantive functional change in 802.11 standard history.
Speaking of history, wireless technology has come a long way since the late '90s and early aughts, when end users thought of 802.11a/b as a nice-to-have novelty in a wired-first world -- if they thought about it at all. Fast forward two decades: Wireless outstrips Ethernet in many environments and is the need-to-have network, with end users expecting service everywhere, from elevators to public restrooms. Demands on the wireless-first LAN keep growing; it makes sense the next standard should perform not just faster and better, but differently. On paper, 802.11ax Wi-Fi fits the bill.
Of course, we're not there yet. Even assuming timely, meaningful adoption in enterprise networks after the standard's ratification in 2019, features like OFDMA will remain academic without ax-capable clients to bring the benefits to life. To quote the Bard: "All that glitters is not gold." But I'm an optimist. Here's hoping 11ax amounts to more than just the shiny object du jour.