Wi-Fi 6 is set to make home – and work – use of Wi-Fi a fast, sweet experience, writes Scott Bartley. We will need it too with device numbers rocketing, especially home IoT devices

Wi-Fi has changed the way the world communicates. It’s everywhere.

In 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance (the industry body that sets Wi-Fi standards) estimated the global economic value of Wi-Fi at nearly US$2 trillion and that more than four billion Wi-Fi devices would ship in 2019 alone. And yet, for all its value, Wi-Fi can be slow, laggy, and, well, not very good sometimes. But that’s been okay, because until recently the speed of the average internet connection was such that at home we didn’t really notice the bottleneck that Wi-Fi was creating.

However, now high-speed gigabit fibre connections are capable of sucking data down faster than Wi-Fi can push it around, current Wi-Fi is looking creakier than ever – particularly when lots of people are using the same network at once. The end result is ruined streaming video and woeful online gaming experiences.

Fortunately, this could be changing now the next generation of Wi-Fi has arrived. It’s called Wi-Fi 6 and it’s going to fix all our problems. That’s the plan, anyway. For now, let's just take a look at the promises Wi-Fi 6 is making.

ARRIVAL OF WI-FI 6

Promises of blazing-fast Wi-Fi are nothing new. Every time a new, better version of the Wi-Fi standards is released, equipment manufacturers are quick to make optimistic claims regarding performance. The difference this time around is that Wi-Fi 6 (which is a new name for what would otherwise have been called 802.11ax) is making some fundamental changes to the way wireless networks operate.

Where previous generations of upgraded Wi-Fi have tended to focus on top-end speed over everything else, Wi-Fi 6 – while also upping those top-end data rates – offers increased capacity, improved power efficiency and better performance in crowded environments. This is the important bit because many of the troubles current Wi-Fi networks encounter stem from overcrowding.

WHY IS WI-FI 6 IMPORTANT?

You may be sitting at home thinking your Wi-Fi runs just fine, so why should you care about overcrowding. Well, consider for a moment, the impact the coming avalanche of IoT devices will have.

Analyst Gartner predicts that during 2019 the number of connected “things” will rise to 14.2 billion before blowing out to 25 billion by 2021. A decent chunk of the IoT market will end up in people’s homes. Devices such as video door-bells, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Amazon Alexa, even fridges, barbeques and washing machines will all want a piece of your home’s Wi-Fi.

Even if you’re not an IoT person, you may still have several mobile phones, a tablet, a laptop, a game console and a Netflix-packing TV all connected to the internet. The point being that the number of devices clamouring for a slice of the limited Wi-Fi bandwidth at home is only going to increase.

PUBLIC WI-FI SET TO BENEFIT

The same goes for the Wi-Fi at work, where networks are painstakingly designed to try and spread the load of dozens or even hundreds of users all trying to connect at once. Large commercial Wi-Fi installations stand to gain the most from a fully fledged Wi-Fi 6 roll-out. Just ask anyone who has ever tried using the public Wi-Fi at a crowded airport, conference or stadium. Congested Wi-Fi networks can be an exercise in frustration, thanks to interminably slow speeds and dropped connections. With so much Wi-Fi cramming the airwaves, these congestion-related problems are what Wi-Fi 6 has been developed to fix. Here’s how it does it.

REAL WORLD SPEEDS

Wi-Fi 6 provides a boost in terms of the outright speed at which it can push data around – it offers a new theoretical single-stream maximum of 1.2Gbps. (There are many ways to conjure theoretical maximum speeds). Compare this to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) which tops out at around 800Mbps over a single stream.

Bear in mind that real world speeds for Wi-Fi will always be significantly lower than the “best case scenario” numbers emblazoned on the box, but, generally speaking, expect up to a 30 percent boost in top-end speed over Wi-Fi 5 for Wi-Fi 6. In short, it’s quite possible your Wi-Fi network can finally match that gigabit fibre connection.

Even though Wi-Fi 6 is faster, the gains are less about top speeds and more about improving the overall experience. This is where increased network capacity through efficiency comes into play. There are many parts to this technical improvement, but perhaps the most important is Orthogonal Frequency Division Multi Access (OFDMA).

OFDMA is an evolution of an existing technology that allows a radio frequency channel to be split up into sub-channels. In the Wi-Fi 5 implementation, we see data sent from the router to a device in consecutive chunks. Wi-Fi 6 changes this in two ways. First it divides the radio spectrum into even smaller chunks and, second, it sends these chunks simultaneously. This is also where Wi-Fi 6’s overall speed improvement is born.

You could be forgiven for thinking this sounds a lot like an existing technology found in high-end Wi-Fi 5 routers, called Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO). It’s not. That’s something different again. To further confuse matters, Wi-Fi 6 also uses MU-MIMO, although it improves the formula in that Wi-Fi 6 devices can transmit simultaneously in both directions and over eight concurrent streams, instead of just four.

These new efficiencies are brand new and should make for huge improvements in the way data flows around the network, both to and from multiple users.

GAMERS REJOICE

A pleasant side effect of these new efficiencies is that latency is reduced. This will finally mean gamers can play online games over Wi-Fi without suffering from game-killing lag spikes when data gets stuck in the queue. Intel – a major player in the Wi-Fi 6 hardware business – set up a gaming booth at this year’s CES consumer technology trade show, to demonstrate games over Wi-Fi 6, such is their confidence in it.

IMPROVED BATTERY LIFE

For battery-powered devices connecting over Wi-Fi 6 (phones, tablets etc), battery life gets a free boost from something called “Target Wake Time”. This is the result of some new smarts inside Wi-Fi 6 routers that allow them to more tightly control the behaviour of connected devices. A router can decide how much data each device actually needs, then allocate only that amount to the stream. For example, instead of allocating the same amount of bandwidth regardless of the type of traffic it’s dealing with, a Wi-Fi 6 router can determine that a 4K Netflix video-stream needs more capacity than an email or tweet. This is called a deterministic connection, and, combined with OFDMA, plays a major role in making Wi-Fi 6 such a big improvement over Wi-Fi 5.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...

All this and we haven’t even touched on improved security, with WPA3; new beamforming technology (for more focused radio signals); 1024-QAM (new signal modulation technology) and the return of 2.4GHz radio spectrum – you’ll need to Google these for a full run-down.

Sadly, even though Wi-Fi 6 hardware is fully backward compatible with Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4 (meaning existing Wi-Fi devices will work just fine with a new Wi-Fi 6 router), to take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 and all the goodness it offers, you will need to buy all new gear – that means new routers, Wi-Fi extenders and devices.

While there are already several consumer-level Wi-Fi 6 routers in the market (prices range from around $600 for a Netgear Nighthawk AX8 to nearly $900 for an ASUS ROG GT-AX11000), the only device supporting Wi-Fi 6 at the time of writing is the Samsung Galaxy S10 mobile phone. This could change at any time. Back in January, at CES, Intel said it expected Wi-Fi 6 enabled laptops to hit shelves from mid-2019. Ironically, even though public and commercial networks stand to gain the most from Wi-Fi 6, thanks to its considerably better handling of large, crowded environments, it’s likely to be some time before all those old public Wi-Fi networks get an upgrade. Give it a few years.