The Future of Wi-Fi Is Coming
While news of the race to 5G frequently makes headlines (and which DisCo recently discussed here), the newest version of Wi-Fi, dubbed “Wi-Fi 6”, will also transform connectivity. Among other improvements, Wi-Fi 6 will tout faster speeds and improved signal strength in congested areas, and it will revolutionize a host of existing and emerging use cases.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
To start with the very basics, “Wi-Fi” refers to a local wireless network technology, which uses electromagnetic waves just like televisions and radios. A wireless router allows electronic devices like laptops or cellphones to wirelessly connect to a network using these electromagnetic waves. Once connected, the device can communicate with other devices on the router’s network, or it can use the router’s Internet connection to access the Internet. The wireless connection provided by the router is invisible and fairly reliable; however, if the router is congested with too many users trying to use high-bandwidth applications at once, or if there are too many wireless networks in a small space, users can experience interference or lose their connections.
Wi-Fi standards have been developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and designated by the number “802.11” along with alphabetical letters signifying the generation of Wi-Fi. For example, the first generation of Wi-Fi was named 802.11b while the fifth generation of Wi-Fi was named 802.11ac. In an effort to make Wi-Fi terms less confusing to consumers, the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization that certifies Wi-Fi products to ensure interoperability, is now adopting a more user-friendly way of identifying the standard with a numerical sequence. As such, Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, is the newest generation of Wi-Fi standards; Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac, is the current standard of Wi-Fi.
Source: Discover Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Alliance
How Will Wi-Fi 6 Improve Upon Wi-Fi 5?
Wi-Fi 6 will improve upon Wi-Fi 5 in various ways. This CNET article provides a helpful analogy for lay people:
Imagine a bar with lots of patrons trying to order drinks and just one bartender on duty. He’s good at his job and capable of multitasking to an extent to speed up service, but it’s still a pretty congested scene, and some patrons are going to have to wait.
The first part of the analogy describes the Wi-Fi standard we have right now—good, but networks can get congested. The article continues by comparing Wi-Fi 6 to Goro from Mortal Kombat, a warrior with four arms:
Suddenly, bartender Goro is serving up drinks to multiple wide-eyed patrons at once. Along with the four arms speeding things up, it turns out he has a knack for the job, too. He’s using each of his humongous hands to drop off multiple drinks in front of multiple customers in a single pass, then grabbing empty glasses on the way back to keep the bar clear.
Wi-Fi 6 will have the capacity to improve performance in dense and congested environments, making networks up to four times faster in these crowded areas. As Scott Harrell, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Enterprise Networking at Cisco, notes, users on Wi-Fi 6 devices will have better experiences in crowded areas. In non-public venues with little congestion, such as an individual using a Wi-Fi router with a single device, maximum potential speeds should be up to 40% higher with Wi-Fi 6 than with Wi-Fi 5.
Furthermore, a new “target wake time” feature for Wi-Fi 6 (which allows the device to know exactly when to put Wi-Fi to sleep and when to wake it up for the next transmission) means that your smartphone, laptop, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices should also have longer battery lives due to being able to conserve power better. Wi-Fi 6 will also have stronger security, given that new Wi-Fi 6 devices are required to support WPA3, an updated security protocol, in order to receive certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance. WPA3, or Wi-Fi Protected Access, will make public, open Wi-Fi safer and enable stronger protections against brute force attacks even when the user’s password is weak.
What Are Potential Uses of Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous in most public venues, and Wi-Fi 6’s improved ability to function in dense environments should allow these venues to offer a wider set of services. For example, stadiums and convention centers, which typically host tens of thousands of users, can improve customer experience and bolster customer interaction with value-added services, such as streaming instant replays on fan devices or allowing food to be ordered from the customer’s seat. Libraries, classrooms, and universities will also benefit from Wi-Fi 6 as education trends such as video-based learning, connected devices, and an increased number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices pervade the learning environment.
Wi-Fi 6’s faster speeds on individual devices will help support a wide range of applications such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and IoT. As Harrell said, “[Wi-Fi 6] will help drive innovation around high-bandwidth and latency-sensitive use cases that should really be untethered, like AR/VR, gaming, and video communications.” Greg Dorai, Cisco’s Vice President of Wireless Product Management, agrees, explaining that Wi-Fi 6 can “enable the proliferation of medical IoT devices, AR/VR-based immersive training and automatic guided vehicles in warehouses.” Furthermore, while Wi-Fi supports most IoT devices today, Wi-Fi HaLow (an extension of Wi-Fi 6, pronounced “halo”) doubles the distances and cuts the power consumption of traditional Wi-Fi. This could allow Wi-Fi HaLow to serve as an alternative to 5G in some situations, such as in the smart home, in digital care or for connected cars.
According to a report by ABI Research, more than 20 billion Wi-Fi devices are expected to ship between 2019 and 2024. 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Wi-Fi, and the need for faster, more reliable, and more widespread Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly important in a world of growing connectivity. Wi-Fi 6 devices are starting to roll out and are expected to be more than half of the devices sold in 2020. Together with 5G, Wi-Fi 6’s promise of faster speeds and better performance will positively impact consumers and lay the foundation for existing and emerging uses.