WiFi 6: Is your wireless obsolete?

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Hearing a lot of buzz about this WiFi 6 thing? Yeah, I am too. It’s the cool new thing to hit wireless technology, and like any new thing, there’s a lot of chatter around it. So what is it and what makes it differ from all the previous WiFi versions before it?

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that wireless technology has evolved significantly over the last few decades. I might be dating myself here, but if you recall the days when you used to use a dial-up to log into AOL and hear that familiar dial tone, followed by what I can only imagine are bird robots screeching – that was pre-WiFi. In terms of the human evolution timeline, that was only a short 23 years ago. In terms of technology however, that was eons ago.

Wireless as we know it was born in 1998 and made popular in 1999 with the proliferation of WiFi 1 and 2 (802.11b and 801.11a respectively). In those days, it was just so cool to be able to connect the internet without wires! No one worried about speed, security, or the bandwidth needed to be able to use the internet comfortably. Remember, this was back before YouTube, streaming services, and cloud servers.

Over time, faster speeds and distance coverage aligned with higher powered routers to improve WiFi standards. By 2003, WiFi was beginning to compete with the speed of the fastest wired connections. We would continue to see significant improvements in WiFi capabilities with the additions of WiFi 3 (801.11g) in 2003, WiFi 4 (802.11n) in 2009, and WiFi 5 (802.11ac) in 2014. WiFi 6 (802.11ax) was actually announced in 2019, but didn’t really see a spike in popularity until 2020.

The largest change introduced by WiFi 6 is that all wireless devices are now allocated designated connections. This is due to orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), which allows each device its own “lane” for communication. This means rather than one device sucking up the entire “band” of wireless signal, multiple devices can operate simultaneously at high-speeds because they now share channels within the wireless band. Some other new features introduced with WiFi 6 include: 

  • Multi-user multiple input, multiple output (multi-user MIMO) which allows more downlink data to be transferred at one time. This improves coverage for environments where multiple devices are used regularly, such as auditoriums, sports venues, warehouses, retail spaces, schools, manufacturing facilities, etc. 
  • The use of 160 MHz channel utilization, which improves bandwidth and lowers latency.
  • Target Wake Time (TWT), which allows us to designate specific time(s) for individual devices to access the wireless network. In doing so, we can consume less power when transmitting data and save battery life!
  • Transmit beamforming is used to provide greater network capacity through higher speeds, more efficient data-delivery routes, and reduced interference for nearby users to allow for more improved range and experience.

Collectively, these features focus on improving wireless as a whole in the areas where most organizations need higher speed, enhanced performance, greater density, and improved coverage. WiFi 6 may be the future, but that doesn’t mean your recent wireless investments are obsolete. Technology at its very nature means being outdated almost immediately. What you can do is start planning ahead.