What is Wi-Fi 6, and why do we need it?

What is Wi-Fi 6, and why do we need it?

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest Wi-Fi standard designed for dense deployments. The even faster Wi-Fi 6E can even enable virtual reality and 4K/8K video. […]

Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, was officially certified in 2020 and has quickly become the de facto standard for wireless LAN (WLAN), replacing Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). Wi-Fi 6 offers improved performance, longer range and longer battery life compared to Wi-Fi 5.

Wi-Fi 6 was originally designed to solve bandwidth problems that occur in dense, high-traffic environments such as airports, stadiums, trains, and offices. However, the explosion of IoT devices that need to connect wirelessly to edge devices and the ever-increasing bandwidth requirements of new data-intensive applications have meant that Wi-Fi 6 may not be outdated as soon as it arrives, but it is certainly not enough for some use cases.

Therefore, Wi-Fi 6 is already complemented by an even newer standard called Wi-Fi 6E (the E stands for “extended”), which uses Wi-Fi 6 technology on newly available unlicensed frequencies in the 6 GHz range to achieve even better performance.

How does Wi-Fi 6 work?

Wi-Fi 6 uses a number of proven wireless technologies and combines them in a way that represents a significant advance over previous standards, without compromising backward compatibility with previous generations.

Wi-Fi 6 increases pure data throughput by almost 40% thanks to higher-order QAM modulation, which allows more data to be transmitted per packet. In addition, a more efficient use of frequencies is achieved. For example, wider channels are created and these channels are divided into narrower subchannels. As a result, the total number of available channels increases, which makes it easier for terminals to find a free way to the Wi-Fi access point.

When it comes to downloads from the access point to the end user, the earlier Wi-Fi standards allowed only one transfer per access point. With the Wave 2 version of Wi-Fi 5, the MU-MIMO (multi-user, Multi-input, multiple Output) method was introduced, which allows the access points to send up to four streams simultaneously. Wi-Fi 6 allows eight simultaneous streams and uses explicit beamforming technology to more accurately direct these streams to the receiver’s antenna.

More importantly, Wi-Fi 6 combines MU-MIMO with an LTE cellular base station technology called OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). As a result, each MU-MIMO stream can be divided into four additional streams, which increases the effective bandwidth per user by four times.

How is Wi-Fi 6 different from Wi-Fi 5?

Wi-Fi 5 works only in the 5 Ghz range, while Wi-Fi 6 works in both the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz ranges, thus creating more available channels. For example, Wi-Fi 6 chipsets support a total of 12 channels, eight in the 5GHz and four in the 2.4Ghz range.

With Wi-Fi 5, MU-MIMO is limited to downlink transmissions only. Wi-Fi 6 creates MU-MIMO connections so that with downlink-MU-MIMO, one access point can send to multiple recipients at the same time, and with Uplink-MU-MIMO, multiple endpoints can send to one access point at the same time.

Wi-Fi 6 supports up to eight MU-MIMO transmissions simultaneously, compared to four on Wi-Fi 5. OFDMA is new to Wi-Fi 6, as are various other technologies such as trigger-based random access, dynamic fragmentation, and space frequency reuse, all of which are designed to improve efficiency.

Finally, Wi-Fi 6 introduces a technology called “Target Wake Time” to improve the efficiency of waking up and falling asleep from smartphones and other mobile devices. This technology is expected to significantly improve battery life.

Applications that benefit from Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 helps companies solve bandwidth and range problems related to existing technologies such as IoT or IT/OT integration. In the past, companies have resorted to niche low-latency, short-range wireless technologies such as Zigbee for IoT device connectivity. However, the powerful features of Wi-Fi 6 allow companies to reduce complexity by standardizing Wi-Fi for all wireless-related applications.

In addition, companies can support emerging technologies such as 4K/8K video and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR). There are a variety of use cases in this field, including telemedicine, wireless offices, remote on-site support, virtual training and collaboration.

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

The “6” in Wi-Fi 6 refers to the sixth generation of technology. Wi-Fi 6E uses the same technology as Wi-Fi 6, but works in the unlicensed 6 GHz band, which was recently released for Wi-Fi.

The 2.4 GHz band includes 11 channels, each with a width of 20 megahertz (MHz). The 5 GHz band has 45 channels, which can be 40 or 80 MHz wide. The 6 GHz band supports 60 channels, which can be up to 160 MHz wide, providing a quantum leap in terms of capacity, reliability and security.

The big catch is that Wi-Fi 6E requires new hardware for both access points and end devices. There is no backward compatibility with Wi-Fi 6 or 5. Only routers and devices with Wi-Fi 6E support can work in the 6 GHz band. So companies need to do an analysis to see if the benefits of upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E justify the cost of the proverbial forklift upgrade.

Advantages of Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6E builds on the core technology of Wi-Fi 6 in many ways:

  • Intensive: The additional spectrum provides more non-overlapping channels, allowing Wi-Fi 6E to support dense IT and IoT environments without sacrificing performance.
  • Reliability: Since this is a true greenfield scenario, network architects can be sure that no other types of devices (microwave ovens) use the spectrum, which means that there is no interference or competition for bandwidth from other wireless sources.
  • Security: WPA3, which provides new authentication and encryption algorithms for networks, is a mandatory requirement for the Wi-Fi 6E network.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are different technologies: wireless LAN vs. cellular. But they have some common features: they represent the latest generation of technologies in their respective spheres of influence, both are promising and can coexist.

While Wi-Fi works outdoors, of course (as long as there’s a strong access point nearby) and cellular indoors (even if you might not get a lot of bars), Wi-Fi is generally designed for indoors (dense, high-traffic environments) and 5G for outdoors (cellular coverage that follows you seamlessly as you drive).

In a perfect world, Wi-Fi and mobile communications would converge, and the devices themselves would automatically select the appropriate network based on pre-established guidelines, such as cost or performance.

There are already initial rumors in this direction. The international Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) produced a report in 2021 in which they advocate the future convergence of Wi-Fi and 5G. The IEEE, which is supported by the Wi-Fi Alliance, has also been discussing possible ways of convergence for several years.

However, real convergence seems to be a long way off at the moment.

*Neal Weinberg is a freelance writer and editor in the field of technology.

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