In this article, I’m going to talk about the state of Wi-Fi 6 going into 2020. A quick historical timeline on 802.11ax: Qualcomm releases their first 802.11ax silicon (Feb. 2017), with Broadcom following suit (Aug. 2017), Marvell (Dec. 2017) and Intel (Jan. 2018); key 802.11ax features ratified in Aug 2019; Samsung releases mobile devices with 802.11ax (March 2019); final 802.11ax ratification estimated for mid 2020. Now that we are finally into the beginning of 2020, has anything changed? I posted a brief overview on 802.11ax last year, but lets get deeper on the technology and find out where the market goes from here.
802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 Overview
Lets sum up all the key features of 802.11ax and dive into each one:
1024-QAM versus 256-QAM
Ultimately, the higher the modulation, the more bits that can be represented, the more data you can fit, the more capacity you get.
- 1024-QAM is 10 bits per symbol while 256-QAM is 8 bits per symbol.
- (10 bits – 8 bits) / 8 bits = 0.25 or 25%
- 1024-QAM has a 25% increase in PHY data rate over 256-QAM.
Orthogonal Frequency-division Multiple Access
OFDMA for short, allows for Wi-Fi streams to be divided into resource units. This allows you to send traffic to multiple clients per stream, rather than reserving each stream to just one client. This is why 802.11ax is key for High Density environments. With the explosion of IoT devices, it will also be a key feature for Smart Homes. Another vertical you’ll see focus in is Education, since the one-to-one initiative dictates that every student has access to a Chromebook. Add a Tablet and a Mobile device, that’s 3 devices per student. With 20-30 students per classroom, that’s 90 client devices, not including staff and IoT devices.
Spatial Reuse (BSS Coloring)
Spatial Reuse, also called BSS Coloring, reduces interference between APs/SSIDs that are on the same channel. SSIDs on the same channel can now apply different colors to prevent overlap. Clients will be aware of the color group they belong to and only respond to the AP of the same color. This reduces cross-talk and interference even when APs are on the same channel with overlapping coverage. I often tell business customers to completely abandon the 2.4GHz frequency because there are just not enough non-overlapping channels to work with (only 3; Channel 1, 6 or 11). But with Spatial Reuse, I’d be more inclined to suggest the use of 2.4GHz for legacy devices while the 5GHz channel spectrum will absolutely flourish with this feature.
Target Wake Time
Target Wake Time increases battery life by allowing the Wi-Fi chip to go to sleep and awake when needed, rather than being on all the time. This happens very quickly and in the background, which adds up to power savings. This will help mobile devices like laptops, cellphones and tablets extend their battery life so they last longer, in theory.
802.11AX Wi-Fi 6 – Final Thoughts
The biggest barrier to 802.1ax Wi-Fi 6 will be the adoption rate on Client Devices. In order to take advantage of all the features mentioned, the Client and the Access Point must both support 802.11ax, meaning it’s not backwards compatible with 802.11ac and lower. Mobile phones just started shipping with 802.11ax late 2019. Laptops have been shipping for over a year and IoT devices are way behind, still on 802.11ac. Theres one sector that is always lightyears behind, printers. Most are still on 2.4GHz 802.11n, likely due to the generally low but bursty traffic and cost. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine, because that usually ends upholding the whole Wi-Fi network back, even if it can’t take advantage of the faster speeds. Home networks will have a better chance of changing everything to Wi-Fi 6, especially the prosumer market that likes to be on the bleeding edge of technology and speed. Businesses on the other hand will still want to support their older devices until they can completely switch over. I predict that businesses will consider upgrading network infrastructure to Wi-Fi 6 mid-late this year if the price is right. Otherwise, they’ll wait for their devices like laptops and mobile phones to catch up and then look to make the switch in 2021. The transition inflection point will be late this year into next year. It’s definitely something we should keep an eye on and re-evaluate at the end of the year.