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Tech Talk with Wireless Nick - WiFi 6: Why We Need It And What It Isn’t

Wireless networks have been around for a long time. The history of the industry began as a nice-to-have feature that was able to function without a cable. Today, wireless has become the primary medium for connectivity in most industries and most households. As this shift has occurred, wireless technology has had to try and keep up. The latest phase of this race is the 802.11ax, or WiFi6, amendment.

Why do we need WiFi6?

By now everyone has heard that 5G is coming and the crazy fast speeds that it will bring from a cellular-side. But WiFi is fighting the same issues as cellular in today’s world. We are oversubscribed on WiFi, speeds suffer because of older technology, wireless is the primary connection method of almost every device in the world, and IoT is coming.

Enter WiFi6.

To be upfront as we begin this, ratification of the 802.11ax standard looks to be at least a year away, with most claiming a date of September 2020 before this will happen. Even without full ratification, manufacturers are starting to put out access points and a few clients are starting to trickle into the market.

So with ratification still a year away, why do we need to worry about WiFi6 now? WiFi6 is more about capacity than speed. As more and more devices are accessing the wireless network, bottlenecks begin appearing. The way WiFi6 will handle this is a trick taken from the cellular industry with OFDMA (Orthagonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). The easiest way to explain it is to picture a highway that has 8 lanes today and then funnels down to a one lane road. A huge bottleneck occurs and all traffic grinds to a halt. Now with WiFi6 and OFDMA, those 8 lanes remain 8 lanes and traffic can flow freely. By having these extra ‘lanes,’ capacity is now increased. This is the key component of WiFi6. There is a great white paper on the traffic lanes with well done diagrams and more information here.

We have all heard about the speeds and how fast we can now send and receive traffic on WiFi6, but capacity is the key to the system. More capacity equals more opportunities for devices to be serviced on the network, especially for time-sensitive data like Voice and Video over WiFi. As we move to Mobility First workplaces, and stop pulling cables to desks, wireless becomes increasingly important. Design is more complex now for wireless and how we can use the spectrum smarter to allow for more of these devices to function and function well.

As stated previously, the key to the new amendment for 802.11ax is not all about speed. It is about capacity. We need to be looking at how we handle this time-sensitive data and not how we push it faster. With WiFi6, the speed is there if you have the right client, but how do we service that least-capable device and make that function as if it is a WiFi6 device? Capacity is the key and we continue to add more devices, i.e. IoT, wireless first deployments, and nurse call devices. WiFi6 is the key to solving this issue and granting that capacity we so badly need.

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