There has been a lot of talk about the next generation of WiFi called WiFi 6 a lot lately.
Now while it might seem like WiFi is just feeling left out while everyone is talking about 5G as the next level upgrade to the cellular networks and it just wants to feel like its getting an upgrade, too, it actually is a very clever new standard for how Wifi works, ways to make it faster, and perhaps most importantly, how to future proof it to handle the massive influx of new wifi-connected devices we keep adding to our own networks.
Qualcomm, one of the top chipset producers in the world, invited me out to San Francisco not too long ago to see what they are doing with WiFi 6 and so, in this inaugural episode of Decodr, a series where I breakdown some tech every week, let’s talk about what WiFi 6 actually is and how it’ll benefit us.
This episode is sponsored by Qualcomm and I hope you enjoy the information regardless 🙂
Why is it Called WiFi 6?
So first off, WiFi 6 is called WiFi 6 because of a collective effort by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry body that tests and certifies WiFi products, to help people understand the different WiFi standards.
WiFi 6 is the name for the new 802.11ax standard whereas WiFi 5 is the new name for 802.11ac, WiFi 4 is the new name for 802.11n, etc. like so:
- Wi-Fi 1: 802.11b (1999)
- Wi-Fi 2: 802.11a (1999)
- Wi-Fi 3: 802.11g (2003)
- Wi-Fi 4: 802.11n (2009)
- Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac (2014)
- Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax (2018)
Each of these new standards basically is when people like VK Jones, the VP of Technology at Qualcomm (and considered the Godfather of WiFi), and other industry professionals get together and discuss what specific features the next generation of WiFi will need to have.
Once they all come to an agreement, that list is then what manufacturers must adhere to in order to have their WiFi devices able to use the new standard.
For WiFi 6 in specific, there are thousands of specific items mentioned in the standard, which we won’t go into here (don’t worry), but for the most part, these can be narrowed down to four really important features that a device needs to support to be included in the new standard.
First up is MU-MIMO, which stands for Multiple User Multiple Input Multiple Output.
What it’s trying to say with all those “multiples” in there though is that it’s a protocol that allows multiple users to send data at the same time (up to 8 in WiFi 6 and Qualcomm has even gone above and beyond the standard requirements and have chipsets capable of 12 users at a time).
Now this doesn’t mean that only 8 devices are talking to the router in total, it means that with every packet the WiFi 6 router sends out (which it does multiple times per second) 8 devices can receive them at once and this can happen with a different 8 devices during the next transmission if needed, maybe another 8 after that or a combination of new devices and some of the same, etc.
So when you think about how fast this signal actually sends out it ends up being a ton more devices that get to talk every minute, for example, instead of waiting their turn like with previous versions of WiFi.
Now in the standard, as it is right now, devices only need to be able to have MU-MIMO support on downloads. So when the router sends info out up to 8 devices (or 12 with Qualcomm’s top chipset) can receive data at once.
Qualcomm though actually has MU-MIMO for uploads as well on their chipsets which again goes above and beyond the standard and lets up to 12 devices transmit data back to the router at once, as well–further increasing the capacity and speed.
The next thing that also helps with the capacity and speed of a Wifi 6 network is OFDMA or Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access which is a long way of saying that during those transmissions from the router each packet of data can actually contain information for multiple devices.
So think of it this way, if MU-MIMO basically opens up 8 lanes of traffic for 8 trucks to go out on at a time, OFDMA then lets each of those trucks split up their payload and drop it off to different devices on the way–without having to load up another truck and send it again just to get to that device. Way more efficient, right?
OK, so, yes, there is a speed improvement, too. Don’t worry. (Thanks to a newer version of QAM).
QAM, or Quadrature Amplitude Modulation, is the technology that is used to determine how much data is in each packet being sent to and from the router.
In the case of WiFi 5 (802.11ac), that was using 256-QAM, whereas WiFi 6 can use 1024-QAM (going from 8 bits of data per packet to 10 bits of data) giving us an increase in speed of about 25%.
Target Wake Time
Now the last thing that also helps a lot with the capacity of the network in WiFi 6 is Target Wake Time.
This feature basically allows the router to talk to each device and negotiate how long that device should be awake to receive and send data and then how long in between those times to go to sleep. The router then will only send data during the awake times which drastically reduces unnecessary chatter on the network freeing up transmissions to carry more important data, and as a side benefit it improves battery life for any WiFi 6 devices on the network, as well.
And last but not least, the new WPA3 security encryption is here now and is a lot more secure than WPA2 which is what most of us are using currently.
In WiFi6 though, WPA3 support will be required for the devices to be compatible.
Why WiFi 6 Is Important
Now, these major changes along with a ton of other more minor ones are what will make WiFi 6 faster, and again, more importantly, work more efficiently when there are a lot more users on the network as is becoming more and more the case (and will only get worse).
It’s one of the biggest changes we’ve had in the Wifi standard honestly, and that’s why there’s so much more talk about it lately– it’s not just a speed boost, it’s something we all truly need in order to for Wifi to continue into the near future.
Something to note in closing, these are just the standards, and essentially bare minimums to be included in WiFi 6, but not all WiFi 6 is created equally. As I mentioned, Qualcomm has gone above and beyond the standard with uplink support in MIMO and OFDMA, and in increasing the number of users on their Qualcomm Networking Pro series to 1500 simultaneous clients, to ways to configure radios for
OEMs that require fewer hardware components, etc.
I hope that helped clear some things up and feel free to let me know if there is anything you’d like to add to the conversation in the comments below.
Be sure to stay tuned for the next episode on Decodr and let me know anything else you’d like to see an episode on in the future!
As always, thanks for watching!