What is WiFi 6? And why it’s so important to the future of your mobile lifestyle

Wi-Fi (which is short for “Wireless Fidelity”) is on the brink of a major update: 802.11ax, also known as “WiFi 6”. For devices which include the new standard (and its requisite hardware), this means big improvements – so long as the network you’re connected to supports it.

To understand what Wi-Fi 6 means for you, let’s first look back on how we got to what we have now, then look at the challenges WiFi 6 is attempting to overcome, and how it has the potential to change your mobile lifestyle.

How we got here…

Today we take being always connected for granted. In the early days, if you wanted to go online, you’d walk over to the family computer, wait several minutes while it booted up, then dial-up your ISP to get on the internet. After another minute or so of dialing, beeps and boops, squawks and squeals, culminating in a ball of static and a sometimes a friendly voice telling you that “You’ve got mail!”

Dialup was painfully slow (in the range of 57kbps at its peak), and tied up your phone line all the while. If you wanted to listen to music, you’d have to download an .MP3 file – which would take at least 10 minutes for an average song. The next steps along the way were ISDN, T1, T3, and other types of “always on” connections, but their price and limited availability kept them mostly reserved to schools and businesses.

Laptops were becoming increasingly popular, as we “little” pocket-sized devices called Personal Digital Assistants. The downside to both was their need for a wire to connect to anything. Your PDA could send and receive email, but only via a “sync” process when connected to your computer. Your laptop could only access the Internet when plugged in to an Ethernet cable.

Then all of that changed

It was the late 1990’s and a new technology had just been standardized: 802.11a.

No, it wasn’t a very sexy name, but it allowed a person with a laptop or even a PDA to pop in a device about the size of a stack of credit cards, and connect to a “wireless network” at work, school, and some high-end libraries. Wi-Fi was born.

Soon after 802.11b arrived and brought with it faster speeds, but the two versions of Wi-Fi weren’t compatible with each other. You would need an 802.11a card for the office, and an 802.11b card at home. The two standards operated on different frequencies and at different speeds.  Eventually, manufacturers built cards which could connect to networks on either standard to help with the confusion and with the cost and inconvenience of needing two cards.

Wireless standards progressed with 802.11g, 802.11n, and finally 802.11ac. To complicate things, some versions of Wi-Fi support 2.4GHz while others support 5GHz. Some support both. There was even an update to 802.11a to add part of the 3.7GHz spectrum, if the device supports it.

The different versions support different security protocols (WEP, WPA, WPA2; TKIP, AES, TKIP+AES, etc.). They offer different speeds, can reach further (or not as far), support multiple paths (MIMO, etc.), and a whole bunch of other technical nuances.

Systems Administrators need to know the nitty-gritty details when they’re deploying networking solutions into their enterprise environments – that’s where the 802.11 specifications come in handy. For home users, however, the names of the ratified standards are confusing and quickly lose their meaning.

To combat that, the “Wi-Fi Alliance” (the organization responsible for creating and designating Wi-Fi standards) is simplifying the way Wi-Fi will be referenced and branded. By simply by referring to which “generation” of Wi-Fi the standard belongs to, all the confusion will be eliminated – well, that’s the hope anyway. And rather than calling everything in the past “Wi-Fi v1.0”, and calling the upcoming version “Wi-Fi v2.0”, the Alliance opted to go back and re-label the older specifications as well:

  • 802.11n (2009): Wi-Fi 4
  • 802.11ac (2014): Wi-Fi 5
  • 802.11ax (“coming soon”): Wi-Fi 6

Presumably, the earlier iterations of Wi-Fi would be referred to thusly, though the Alliance did not explicitly state it in their documentation:

  • 802.11a (1997): Wi-Fi 1
  • 802.11b (1999*): Wi-Fi 2
  • 802.11g (2003): Wi-Fi 3

While generational version numbers will be easier for end-users to understand, there’s going to be some overlap with the original naming convention while the new one is adopted. Another interesting item to note is that the internal revision numbers aren’t likely going away – we’ll still have 802.11ax as a ratified standard, but it will be marketed (and labeled) as “Wi-Fi 6”.

(* = 1999 was around the time when home users began to be able to deploy Wi-Fi in their own homes, and utilized the newer Wi-Fi specification, which used less expensive 2.4GHz radios than the 802.11a equipment businesses had been deploying.)

Changes to the User Interface

When you’re out and about on your mobile device, chances are that you know (basically) how fast your connection speed is:

  • LTE-A, LTE, “4G”, H+ or 3.5G, H or 3G, E, G, or other symbols.

There’s some confusion there, too, but in general, you know how fast you “could” be connecting. (Hat Tip to those of you who have been with us long enough to remember EDGE and GPRS!)

WiFi 6 Sample User Interface Visuals

But with Wi-Fi, you have no idea unless you drill into the settings to see if you’re on 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or how fast your connection speed is.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to fix that and is offering up a few sample visuals describing how your device’s UI might tell you what kind of Wi-Fi you’re connected to.

The Realist in me says that this is a way to expose to the user which generation of tech you’re offering to your customers (or family members), and shame you into upgrading. For example, if the Internet speed at your house is 50mbps (which mine is), the 802.11g specification (Wi-Fi 3) from a decade ago should be “more than enough” for a few devices to connect and max-out your Internet connection. Why would you need to buy a new device? With the new naming scheme, now there’s a visible reason – which will make hardware manufacturers happy!

What are the Benefits of Wi-Fi 6

Just like every phone we cover, when compared to the previous generation, the new one is “faster”, “smaller”, “uses less power”/“longer battery life”, etc. The Wi-Fi Alliance promises that Wi-Fi 6 will offer:

  • Higher data rates
  • Increased capacity
  • Better performance in environments with many connected devices
  • Improved power efficiency

Those are the selling points. Here’s how they plan to accomplish those goals:

  • Uplink and downlink orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) increases efficiency and lowers latency for high demand environments
  • Multi-user multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) allows more data to be transferred at one time, enabling access points (APs) to handle larger numbers of devices simultaneously
  • Transmit beamforming enables higher data rates at a given range to increase network capacity
  • 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM) increases throughput for emerging, bandwidth-intensive use cases
  • Target wake time (TWT) significantly improves battery life in Wi-Fi devices, including IoT clients

The take-aways from all that are lower overhead (latency and target wake time) for better “wake up” speeds and lower power consumption (which is very important for battery-operated IoT devices like door locks, sensors, buttons, etc.). Beamforming will continue to improve to hone in on signals in hard-to-reach places (think “spot light” versus “flood light”). MIMO lets users send more data at once, and MU-MIMO extends this feature to multiple users connected to the access point.

Most interesting is the 1024-QAM modulation mode which will (drastically) increase throughput. We may not see much improvement in consumer-grade devices, but longer-distance devices such as the pair which connect my home to my Internet connection (over a mile, 1.7km away), and WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) could see significant improvements with Wi-Fi 6-capable hardware.

If you’re in the market for a new router or wireless access point, and can wait until later this year, you’d probably be well-advised to wait for a Wi-Fi 6 Certified device. They’re probably going to come at a premium price – but value seekers coming from older hardware could grab an 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) device at a discount, without losing much performance. As far as high-end devices (laptops, phones, computers, wearables, etc.) will probably see the new Wi-Fi 6 standard sometime in 2020.

And finally…

Just in case you thought the Wi-Fi Alliance was making things easier with Wi-Fi 6, here’s everything they currently have lined up:

  • Wi-Fi 6: The newest generation of Wi-Fi connectivity, Wi-Fi 6 is based on IEEE 802.11ax and brings faster speeds than previous technologies in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Increased range, better performance in environments where many devices compete for bandwidth, and enhanced power efficiency for devices are characteristics of Wi-Fi 6.
  • Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WiGig™: Providing multi-gigabit speeds for line-of-sight scenarios in the 60 GHz band, WiGig® enables a host of high bandwidth uses. The potential for applications such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and services such as HD streaming is being realized through WiGig.
  • Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Vantage™: Bringing streamlined Wi-Fi connectivity to managed networks in transportation hubs, stadiums, shopping malls, and more enables users to remain connected and productive on the go. Wi-Fi Vantage™ networks combine high performance connectivity, network intelligence, and smoother transitions as users traverse the wider network.
  • Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3™: The next generation of Wi-Fi security, WPA3™, provides cutting-edge security protocols. WPA3 simplifies Wi-Fi security, enables more robust authentication, delivers increased cryptographic strength, and maintains resiliency of mission critical networks.
  • Wi-Fi HaLow™: Wi-Fi HaLow provides the long range and low power needed to support IoT applications such as smart home systems that monitor, protect, and control home environments, and connected wearable devices to help maintain health.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.