Gunnar Assmy - Fotolia
The pending arrival of the 802.11ax wireless LAN standard, also known as Wi-Fi 6, has been filled with hype and buzz. Whether its talking heads pontificating about 802.11ax benefits versus 5G in a conversational cage fight or WLAN vendors racing their pre-standard gear out the door with claims of first and best, 802.11ax is taking root in our thoughts and plans.
But, when 802.11ax formally arrives next year, what will we really get out of it? Let's review the expected 802.11ax benefits.
- Faster Wi-Fi. This is the easy one. It's not news that every new Wi-Fi standard runs faster than the previous one at the high end of the specification. But 802.11ax has the potential to routinely push client connectivity past the 1 Gbps mark for true throughput -- and not just for the data rate shown in your wireless client utility. Quality of design and client mix are among the factors that will determine actual recognized speeds, but the possibilities are impressive.
- Simultaneous servicing of multiple clients. Prior to Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi has been a one-at-a-time paradigm. Each client takes its turn at transmitting, while all other devices -- including the access point -- listen. Although it zips along pretty good, this feature has been a limiting factor in previous standards. 802.11ax uses a technology called orthogonal frequency-division multiple access to provide the potential for a handful of client devices to do their network thing at the same time if they are doing lower-bandwidth traffic. Like all things wireless, a slew of dynamic factors will contribute to how this plays out, but it's a huge development in Wi-Fi capabilities. This feature is sometimes considered "switch-like," but wireless professionals loathe that analogy as the communications are still half duplex and shared media.
- Better rate-over-range. Just as 802.11n was considered better than 802.11g from the perspective of general cell quality, Wi-Fi 6 will usually provide better data rates at the same distance and power levels in a well-designed WLAN environment versus .11n. It's better radio technology overall at the transmit and receive level.
- Power to the people -- and to the client devices. Using a new power-management capability called Target Wake Time, 802.11ax changes how the WLAN interacts with the client devices in a way that results in more efficient scheduling of traffic for each device. This should be a boon to IoT clients and mobile devices alike, and is part of the narrative on why .11ax is revolutionary.
- Better coexistence with the neighbors. In past WLAN standards, nearby basic service sets (BSS) could essentially slow down wireless life for a given cell out of an abundance of caution regarding factors like co-channel interference. Wi-Fi 6 rethinks how it coexists with neighboring cells on the same channel, and uses a technique called BSS coloring to reduce neighbor-induced latency and increase overall system capacity.
This list is far from comprehensive, but it does hit the high points of 802.11ax advantages. With the new standard, the Wi-Fi improvements are significant, but remember that true performance gains will require solid design, healthy client devices and knowledgeable support.