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What is WiFi-6 (802.11ax) & How Its Router / Access Point (AP) Work?

May 21, 2020

What is WiFi-6 (802.11ax) & How Its Router / Access Point (AP) Work?

WiFi 6 is a hot topic at the moment, but what it does and how it works is more complex than simply stating it will make a WiFi network faster. Although things will be faster than before, it is more than the basics like range and speed. Wi-Fi 6 will redefine how routers manage the increasing number of devices connected to the internet in our lives and homes. 

What is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6, or to use its technical name 802.11ax, is the latest version of the 802.11 standard. This standard is used for wireless network transmissions that is commonly call WiFi. The prior version of the WiFi standard was known as 802.11ac and WiFi 6 is backward-compatible to that version.

WiFi 6 is not a new way to connect to the internet, such as for example fiber, but the standard is used by compatible devices such as routers to make the transmission of WiFi signals more efficient.

The names previously used for wireless network transmissions were clunky and did not make sense to people not working within the wireless network industry. The WiFi Alliance, an industry group that maintains and certifies WiFi devices, has therefore decided to start using a way of referring to the standard that is more user-friendly and simpler. 802.11ax, the latest version, is the 6th iteration of the 802.11 standard, so the Alliance has decided to call it WiFi 6. The standard's previous generations will also use the same naming convention retroactively. The current standard, 802.11ac mentioned before, is now called WiFi 5 (NOT to be confused with 5G which altogether a different technology related to mobile networks).

When will WiFi 6 be available?

Although WiFi 6 is already available, it will be a while before many options become available. WiFi 6 routers are already available, including better mesh options. Many of the latest smartphones all support WiFi 6 as well. As the certification program for WiFi 6 devices from the WiFi Alliance is officially available, the next versions of WiFi smart home devices, streaming devices and laptops will soon also support WiFi 6.

To reap the full benefits of 802.11ax, both a WiFi 6 router and devices supporting WiFi 6 will be required, but with a new router that supports WiFi 6, older devices not supporting it yet would still work as normal. Old Wi-Fi 5 devices will not be faster, and you may not even notice a speed improvement at all despite adding a WiFi 6 access point (AP) - unless a WiFi 6 Cloud modality is used. Although WiFi 6 supports older generation 802.11 devices, it can't do anything to make them faster.

How fast will WiFi 6 be?

Although this topic is still being debated, the early indications from industry analysts is that WiFi 6 offers speeds that are about 30% faster than WiFi 5. Theoretically, the maximum transfer speed will be about 10 Gbps.

Having said that, actual speed increase that will be experienced will ultimately depend on its environment. Speeds higher than a Gigabit per second will likely not really be needed from one device, but in environments that have many devices that have to be connected to the internet, WiFi 6 may make a massive difference. The speed difference will be more difficult to notice in small businesses and homes that only have a small number of devices on the network.

It should also be noted that internet service providers (ISPs) will act as a speed limiter for any local network. WiFi 6 routers won't speed it up magically.

If you, for example, have a fiber connection with speeds of up to 300 Mbps, this is a mere 3% of what a WiFi 6 router can achieve. To fully utilize the extra speed a WiFi 6 router offers, you would need to get a plan from the ISP to match the speeds. At the moment, there are not many plans that go that high.

The reality is that ISPs still have to do a lot of work with infrastructure rollouts before users can really take advantage of next generation routers, and this may take years. When faster speeds do however become available from ISPs, there will be hardware available that can utilize it.

How is WiFi 6 better?

Imagine a hairdressing salon with many customers wanting to have their hair cut and colored, but there is only one hairdresser on duty. She is very good at her job, and manages to multitask to provide faster service, but the scene is still pretty congested, and some customers will have to wait.

If we assume that the hairdresser is the router, and the customers are all the devices in the business or home that communicate with it via WiFi - smart home devices, phones, laptops, etc. All of these need the hairdresser's attention, but she can do only so much at the same time, no matter how good she is at her job.

Using a WiFi 6 router is similar to replacing the hairdresser with one that has four, or even six arms.

Suddenly, the hairdresser is able to wash one customer's hair, while at the same time cutting the second's hair and blow-drying the third - all at the same time. As she uses her six arms to speed things up, she is also very skilled at the job. She only needs one hand to cut hair, while the other is used is used to sweep up and dispose of the cut hair at the same time.

What does this mean in practice?

WiFi 6 has been designed to enable a network access point like a router to make communications with more devices and users simultaneously more effective, and it does so in such a way that they don't use as much power.

A WiFi 6 router packs more data into every signal it sends, enabling it to connect with devices more efficiently and faster. A WiFi 6 access point is also able to split up individual signals between multiple devices, and services them all with a single transmission, similar to a delivery truck making multiple drop-offs on a single route.

QAM FTW.

As mentioned, a WiFi 6 router can send more data with every signal. WiFi uses radios and a device that wants to send a WiFi transmission modulates the frequency's signal on a channel. Devices receiving these transmission sees the specific modulations as pieces of binary numbers.

This method is known as QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation). The better a router is able to handle QAM, the more binary numbers can be sent with every transmission. 2-QAM access points can for example only modulate a WiFi radio wave in one of 2 ways, so every transmission can only be a 0 or a 1. 4-QAM access points can modulate radio waves in 4 different ways, which allows it to send either 11, 10, 01, or 00 with every transmission. This is already a big improvement.

Existing WiFi 5 routers are 256-QAM. This allows them to send eight binary digits simultaneously. This was a massive improvement from previous versions, and is a big reason why people had to spend less time while waiting for videos to buffer after around 2013, when WiFi 5 became available.

WiFi 6 will increase the QAM rating to 1024-QAM that allows devices to send ten binary digits with every transmission. According to the WiFi Alliance, this will translate to speed increases of a much as 30%, which will in turn provide better throughput for use cases that are bandwidth intensive, such as reality apps, 4K streams, etc.

Multitasking with OFDMA.

Another new feature of WiFi 6 is known as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access).

OFDMA enables a router to serve multiple clients simultaneously within one channel. OFDMA does this by allowing the router to split the channel it uses to send signals on 5 or 2.4 GHz frequency bands into smaller frequency divisions known as RUs or resource units. This gives the router another way to send out information, which will in turn reduce latency or delay.

If a user for example checks his Twitter feed while streaming a video at the same time, the WiFi 6 router can use one RU for the phone and another for the streaming device, or split the data required by each device between more than one RU. Whichever way the router uses, both devices will be serviced by the router at the same time.

OFDMA also complements another feature known as MU-MIMO. This stands for multi-user, multiple input multiple output. MU-MIMO, like OFDMA, allows a router to communicate with several devices simultaneously, but rather than splitting channels into RUs, MU-MIMO uses three-dimensional differences between the devices to split servicing them.

Introduced as an upgrade to WiFi 5 in 2015, MU-MIMO could initially only be used for signals going out from the router. The WiFi 6's version of MU-MIMO changes that, and the router will be able to also process incoming signals from several devices at the same time.

Target's Wake Time.

A WiFi 6 access point is also smarter when they schedule when a device must wake up to request information. This enables the devices to prevent interfering with one another. This results in them spending more time in sleep mode and saving their battery. This means things like motion sensors and smart locks may not have to have their batteries swapped out as often as before.

This is possible due to new functionality known as Target Wake Time, which allows a router to act as a traffic controller. When devices like temperature sensors or smart locks on a network need to ping a router periodically to report their status, WiFi 6 enables the router to schedule them to prevent incoming signals colliding and avoiding congestion.

Industry experts believe this feature could have a huge impact in homes.

Up until now, the default for waking up was 100 times a second. This can now be changed to waking up only once per second, and that will have a massive impact on battery life. WiFi networks can now start serving everything in a way that is extremely power conscious.

Where and when will WiFi 6 make an impact on my life?

Although the WiFi Alliance has already published the certification program for devices using 802.11ax, it is still early for WiFi 6. WiFi 6 routers are available on the shelf at some retail outlets and top of the line smart phones like the iPhone 11 and Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 already support WiFi 6

There's however not much reason yet for most people to go out and purchase a WiFi 6 router. At this stage, they are still very expensive and you should be able to get a better price waiting for sales in the future. Even if you do buy one right now, it won't really give you any advantages until most of devices you use also support the standard. This is still a long way in the future.

Also remember that WiFi 6 upgrades routers and WiFi devices, but does not upgrade a WiFi service. A WiFi 6 router will not improve a slow connection from service providers.

Having said that, mesh routers that use WiFi 6 will already see a markedly improved performance at range. This is due to a mesh router being a multi-point system that utilizes wireless range extenders as satellite devices for routers. WiFi 6 mesh routers can use the faster speeds and new features to spread a signal throughout a house better. Even if no other WiFi 6 gadgets are used, when connecting through the extender, the network will likely be faster than WiFi 5.

The problem is however that those WiFi 6 mesh routers are very expensive.

Businesses are however already starting to adopt WiFi 6 at the enterprise level, meaning you may soon be connecting to a WiFi 6 network at work. As improved handling of many devices simultaneously is a key feature of the new version, WiFi 6 will make a huge difference in crowded, dense spaces like airports and stadiums, and that is exactly what is already happening.


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  • 30% faster than 5? Now that’s technology that I needed like yesterday. Sign me UP. -aps

    APS Caroline on

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