Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – Everything You Need to Know!
Everyone and everything these days seems to use wireless networking. From our phones and tablets that we cannot live without to the smart devices in our homes (refrigerators, stereos, lighting, etc.) to monitoring sensors in factories and other industries, wireless networking is integrated into pretty much everything we do – it’s everywhere! Wi-Fi 6 will have a major impact on sensors and devices that are now being referred to as IoT (Internet of Things).
As the number of devices that connect to wireless networking increases and we rely on these devices more and more, the existing wireless technologies in use today will become overloaded and reach their breaking point. How many times have you run into error messages when trying to connect to the wireless network at your local coffee shop? This is where Wi-Fi 6 and its enhancements come to the rescue.
Wireless Access Points (WAPs or APs) are what provide the wireless signal (Wi-Fi) that you connect to at home or in offices/stores. Currently, AP’s using the current Wi-Fi standards can only communicate with one device at a time over channels that the AP’s provide in the wireless spectrum. Each device then uses that entire channel to send/receive data. On a small network (say at your home) with only 3 or 4 devices, this is not a problem as the switching between each device happens quickly. However, as the number of devices increases, you can start to feel the inefficiency of this method.
Think about the last time you were in a coffee shop with your laptop inevitably sharing the connection with 20 or 30 other people also on their devices. Or consider a factory with 100 or 1,000 wireless IoT sensors sending data about performance to get an idea of how inefficient the old method is.
The Wi-Fi 6 update includes a technology known as OFDMA – Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access. This update allows the AP to communicate with several devices at the same time.
And to take it one step further, OFDMA allows the AP to communicate with each device and then determines how much bandwidth is needed by a device and reserves that amount for each device (measured in RU’s – Resource Units). Once the AP has determined these needs, then it can send everything at once which is much, much more efficient than the existing method. It carves out separate lanes of communications (channels) for each device and it does this for both upstream and downstream transmissions.
TwT – Targeted Wake-Up Time
Let’s go back to our previous example of a factory with 100 wireless sensors that are monitoring machine performance. These devices are sending data constantly over the network 24 hours a day. The Wi-Fi radios in these devices have to be up and running all day as well. These devices have batteries and the constant data transmission will run out the batteries and then require someone to replace/recharge them.
If the data that is being sent by these devices only needs to be checked once or twice a day, then TwT allows the AP and the sensor to communicate and work out a schedule of when the sensor needs to turn-on (wake-up) and send data and then it can turn off again. This results in power and maintenance savings for these sensors.
Now one small sensor may not require much power, but if you start thinking of factories or hospitals with thousands or more of these devices, the savings and benefits start to add up quickly (battery-life and maintenance). One additional benefit is that it can be extended down to smartphones as well when communicating over Wi-Fi. I don’t think I have to tell anyone what a benefit that is!
2.4 GHz is Back!
It may not seem to be a benefit, but the last iteration of the Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, did away with the 2.4 GHz spectrum and only supported 5 GHz. APs using the previous standards of 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n all had the option of using 2.4 GHz spectrum. The benefits of being able to use the 2.4 GHz spectrum are two-fold One – For small sensors (IoT devices) it allows the use of cheaper 2.4 GHz radios (cheaper is always good) and Two – 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi is a longer range Wi-Fi than 5 GHz. The longer-range allows for IoT sensors and devices to be more dispersed at a site.
One important thing you need to understand about wireless networks and AP’s is that an AP will listen to and try to communicate with other wireless signals/networks that are in close proximity to them and are operating at the same frequency. When an AP “hears” these other wireless networks, it will momentarily stop and listen and try to figure out if it can communicate with them. To get a little technical – If the AP “hears” this signal, they have to process the wireless frame and wait for a clear medium to transmit. This is referred to as Co-Channel Interference or CCI and it impacts the performance of our wireless networks. Wi-Fi 6 introduces the concept of Basic Service Set (BSS) Coloring which allows you to assign your Wi-Fi network a color (let’s pick blue for example) and then your AP’s will ignore any other wireless signals/networks out there. Your APs will only listen and communicate with devices on our “Blue” network. This greatly reduces the impact of CCI on wireless network performance.
You may also ask about speed and the Wi-Fi 6 update. Each new iteration of Wi-Fi – 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11n, 802.11ac – has gotten faster. The last iteration – 802.11ac – had a maximum throughput of 844 Mbps. Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) does have a speed increase to approximately 1200 Mbps. But overall, the enhancements that come with OFDMA, TwT, 2.4GHz and BSS Coloring are what makes the Wi-Fi 6 update so important.
So what should you do next to start taking advantage of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)? IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance (two separate entities) are looking to ratify the 802.11ax standard in late 2019. However, manufacturers are already releasing products that utilize the updates. AP’s are available now as well as endpoint devices that support the new standard. So if you start implementing Wi-Fi 6 AP’s and have endpoint devices that support the new standard, you can immediately start to see the benefits listed above. Also, remember that 802.11ax is fully compatible with all other iterations of the 802.11 standards, so your existing devices will still work on your new Wi-Fi 6 network.
If you need assistance determining your path forward using the new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) standard, give ABS a call and we can help.
After earning his Electrical Engineering degree from Old Dominion University, Kelly was trained by the government as a Nuclear Engineer before dipping his toe into the IT industry in 1994. He started out as a Field Service Engineer before working making the move into the networking and security side of IT. Eventually, Kelly worked all the way up to serve as the Head of the Network Security for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. After 18 years of working for the Federal Government, Kelly moved into the contracting arena and then moved onto HP where he eventually made his way into project management. In 2019, Kelly transitioned from Senior Project Manager to Director of Platform Services, overseeing all Infrastructure and Collaboration efforts.