Technology constantly improves: more processing power, more features, and more options. Consequently, a need for more bandwidth follows. Wireless connections are quite popular, so recently, the Wi-Fi Forum completed the latest version of its standard, Wi-Fi 6, which increases the top speed to 10Gbps.

Wi-Fi standards have been evolving since the first version was created at the turn of the millennium. The solutions are popular because they support a diverse group of devices: desktops, tablets, smartphones, and notebooks and a growing variety of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, such as sensors, health care monitors, and video cameras. The latest iteration, which is the first upgrade since 2014, differs from its predecessors in design, bandwidth, features, and naming conventions.

Two Bands are Better than One

Traditionally, Wi-Fi solutions operated over the 5GHz wireless frequency band. Wi-Fi 6 runs over two bands: 2.4GHz in addition to 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band was selected because it offers flexible, high speed connections, but it is not backward compatible with previous iterations of the standard.

Speed is often the main attraction with new network options, and Wi-Fi 6 operates at 10Gbps compared to the 3.5Gbps available with Wi-Fi 5. When examining top speeds, the listed high water marks are usually more theoretical than actual because they focus on best case network design scenarios. Enterprises usually do not reach the maximum, but they should gain a significant boost in raw performance with the new networking approach.

Design Changes

Wi-Fi 6 supports a few new features that provide the extra speed. The system relies on 1024- Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). The previous version worked with 256-QAM, so enterprises gain a fourfold performance boost. The new standard also uses transmit beamforming, which collects availability information from a series of access points and creates the ideal path for a signal, again increasing network performance.

Another change is previous versions focused on delivering bandwidth to solo devices, like a laptop or a smartphone. The new standard relies on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which was designed to support multiple devices on one wireless channel. The reason for the change was to position Wi-Fi 6 as a possible option for IoT applications. Here many small devices, such as sensors, collect information and then send it over one wireless link to a central system for processing.

Wi-Fi 6 also uses an enhanced version of Multi User Multiple Input Multiple Output systems (MU-MIMO), which was first made available with Wi-Fi 5. The upgrade doubles the number of spatial streams that can be transmitted from a maximum of four previously to eight devices now.

In addition, channel size increased. The solution supports two 160 MHz channels, which increases bandwidth to deliver greater performance with low latency creating more responsive connections. Previous versions relied mainly on 40 MHz and 80 MHz channels. The end result? On congested networks, Wi-Fi 6 increases the average throughput by 30% and more in certain cases.

Other Noteworthy Changes

Improved battery life is one more enhancement. A Target Wake Time (TWT) function lets a wireless access router and a client system communicate and determine when the end device needs to wake up to transmit or receive data. No longer do client devices have to constantly listen for wireless signals, which reduces battery usage. This feature also meshes with IoT devices because they often communicate irregularly.

The last change centers on Wi-Fi naming conventions. Historically, new releases were signified by alphanumeric extensions, for instance, the previous version was known as Wi-Fi Now, they are using only numerical suffixes, with this being the sixth version of the standard.

The new solution offers companies many intriguing features, but it also creates a few deployment hurdles. As noted, the system supports two wireless bands, so some new functions work only with Wi-Fi 6 routers and devices. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 devices have just begun shipping and carry the premium pricing associated with new technology. Management systems are just starting to be delivered, so, current systems may not offer as much functionality as legacy wireless network management products.

In sum, the new wireless network option provides faster speeds, improved performance on crowded connections, and better battery life. However, it may create incompatibility issues, carries a high price, and offers fledgling management features. To determine if the new option makes sense for your organization, you may want to turn to a third party for advice.

View Our Network Engineering Case Studies