In recent years, Wi-Fi 6 has been gaining significant interest as it is proclaimed to be the future of wireless technology. If you’re considering upgrading your network but still wondering: “what's the fuss all about?”, let’s not waste any minute and get yourself some answers!
What’s the difference between IEEE 802.11ax and Wi-Fi 6?
Many people confuse the functions of the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA). The IEEE writes the standards, in this case, IEEE 802.11ax, which is an amendment to the IEEE standard. The amendment is over 750 pages and defines all the technology, operations, and protocols that comprise the standard.
The WFA, on the other hand, does not write the standards but is responsible for making sure 11ax-based products are correctly designed to interoperate. This starts by creating task groups of individuals from the industry who review the standard and identify what key component will be tested for interoperability. This is called certification. Not all parts of the IEEE standard are included, and some companies will include additional capabilities and offer proprietary features.
So why the two different names? In previous certifications, the WFA just used the name of the standard as the name of the certification, so an IEEE 802.11n product was certified as 802.11n. With the release of 11ax, the WFA changed the naming to identify the generation of the Wi-Fi product, in this case, “Wi-Fi 6” (think the 6th generation of Wi-Fi). So, a product built to the 11ax specification will be tested by the WFA and if it passes it will be called Wi-Fi 6 certified.
What’s so special about Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 changes the way Wi-Fi will work forevermore. Traditionally a Wi-Fi radio could only talk to a single client at a time, so a two-radio APs could communicate with two clients simultaneously.
Now don’t confuse clients supported with communication. Most APs can support the simultaneous association of a hundred or more clients, but each radio can only talk to one at a time. Through Wi-Fi’s evolution, 11a, b, g, n, ac, Wi-Fi data rates continuously got faster, but they were still limited to one client at a time per radio.
This changed with Wi-Fi 6 when a new protocol was added, Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access, or just call it OFDMA. This protocol allows a single radio to communicate to multiple clients simultaneously, clearly, you can see the advantage of this as communication is now in parallel versus serial. OFDMA is not the only new feature in Wi-Fi 6, but it is the predominant enhancement.
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You sold me on Wi-Fi 6, when should I rip out my existing Wi-Fi?
Your upgrade cycle should not change, if your current network is providing the performance required there is no need to replace it. However, when the time comes for an upgrade, note you will have two choices: 11ac or 11ax.
You can go with 11ac, it is a great technology that’s been around for several years and will provide that same level of service for the life of a new network. Or you can choose 11ax, but let’s be honest, the clients are just starting to appear, but in 12-18 months you’ll start to see large quantiles of 11ax devices on your network. With 11ax, at that time you will then be able to support and take advantage of the greater network efficiency and performance offered by the infrastructure.