Wi-Fi 6: What Can We Expect From 802.11ax?

Wi-Fi 6 is also referred to as High-Efficiency Wireless. What can we expect to see in practice as more products begin to support the new 802.11ax standard?

The most exciting thing currently (August 2019) on the Wi-Fi horizon is 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6. Another name for 802.11ax is High-Efficiency Wireless, and the main selling point for the new standard is indeed higher efficiency connections.

When Did 802.11ax Become Available?

Depends what you mean by “available”. The first Wi-Fi clients that support 802.11ax hit the markets around the end of 2018 / early 2019.

Wi-Fi 6 Certified (logo from Wi-Fi Alliance)
Wi-Fi 6 is the Wi-Fi Alliance certification of products that support 802.11ax.

Wi-Fi Alliance started its product certification programme on September 16, 2019 and simultaneously announced a short list of the very first certified products.

The standards body IEEE, however, did not officially ratify and publish the final standard until May 19, 2021. It is, in other words, perfectly normal for manufacturers to implement and deliver technology long before the standards are completed.

It is also relatively rare to see major changes between the pre-standard and the ratified version, but in this context it is common to refer to three product categories:

  • Compatible: The product should work with other equipment that uses the standard, but is not expected to be certified at any point. This applies, for example, where there are limitations in hardware that prevent certification.
  • Certifiable: Equipment that one assumes will be certified when everything is ready. All hardware is in place, and any remaining changes can be made in software alone.
  • Certified: The product has been fully certified as compliant with the ratified standard.

Must, Should, May – What Functionality Will We See?

All of the wireless standards have a lot of functionality and many options, some of which are mandatory (one must have them in order to say that one supports the standard) and quite a few of which are optional. One of the things that Wi-Fi geeks are curious and excited to see is which of the optional features will actually be implemented and applied.

Based on previous versions, we can say that the products that end up supporting the optional functionality will generally be relatively few and costly.

Killer Features–Maybe

TechnologyWhich in practice may meanStatus
Includes both 2.4 and 5 GHz: New functionality for both bandsAffects many more clients than 802.11ac, which covered only 5 GHz. IoT is primarily using 2.4 GHz.Mandatory
Higher QAM modulation: Increased parallelizationGreatly increased throughput (but potentially also greater interference vulnerability)Mandatory
OFDMA: Access point uses “sub-channels” to send to multiple clients at the same timeDecreased latency and jitterMandatory
Coloring: All traffic is labeled with the intended recipientBetter use of airtime and interference reductionOptional
Target Wake Time: An access point can tell the client when to wake upIncreased battery life on the client. Possible killer feature for IoT (but probably not as an optional feature, since IoT devices are mostly low cost products)Required for AP, optional for client
Increased theoretical maximum speed: 14 GbpsThings go faster 🙂 802.11ac has 3.47 or 6.93 (Wave 2)

A technology carried along from 802.11ac is MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input multiple output). You can read more about what our expectations were for MU-MIMO here.

MU-MIMO is an example of technology that looked promising, but in practice has not made itself very useful so far. It is not supported by any Apple products, and many other manufacturers have also chosen to drop it.

Must be seen in action

Of course, 802.11ax is backwards compatible with previous standards and can communicate with clients that use these standards. However, older clients cannot benefit from the new functionality in ax. In other words, we will not know what ax will mean in practice until both access points and a much larger proportion of clients with 802.11ax are in use.

This article is not extremely certain of anything. This is precisely because we know from experience that it is almost impossible to say what you will get out of a new Wi-Fi technology before it is put to work in the total mix of new and old, supported and unknown that make up most of today’s wireless networks.

For the dedicated Wi-Fi geek we can warmly recommend this deep dive from Wi-Fi Ninjas: WiFi 6 Deep Dive & Real World Testing – which looks more closely at what functionality is available in the products that are on the market so far, and what you can get out of it.

We have several Wi-Fi 6 products for sale and look forward to more products on the way from both Zyxel and other vendors. We have started gathering information about compatibility issues here and promise to keep sharing more about what we see! Learn more about the wifi solutions we have on offer here.

Article by Jan Pedro Tumusok and Jorunn Danielsen