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 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 Will 802.11ax Be Here?

For some values of "here", it's already happened. The first Wi-Fi clients that support 802.11ax hit the markets around the end of 2018 / early 2019.

The standard itself, however, is per the summer of 2019 still not ratified by the standard organization IEEE. Note that it's perfectly normal for manufacturers to implement and deliver technology long before the standards are completed. Ratification will likely happen in the third quarter of 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.

This also means that, for example, product certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance can only be available after this, and that products delivered before that time are not certified.

It is 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. Because ratification has not yet happened, there are so far no products in this category.

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 are generally relatively few and costly.

Killer Features – Maybe

Technology Which in practice may mean Status
Includes both 2.4 and 5 GHz: New functionality for both bands Affects many more clients than 802.11ac, which covered only 5 GHz. IoT is primarily using 2.4 GHz. Mandatory
Higher QAM modulation: Increased parallelization Greatly increased throughput (but potentially also greater interference vulnerability) Mandatory
OFDMA: Access point uses "sub-channels" to send to multiple clients at the same time Decreased latency and jitter Mandatory
Coloring: All traffic is labeled with the intended recipient Better use of airtime and interference reduction Optional
Target Wake Time: An access point can tell the client when to wake up Increased 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 Gbps Things 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 interested Wi-Fi nerd 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 can't wait to get started with our own testing of ax products that are incoming from several of our suppliers and promise to share more about what we see when this happens!

Article by Jan Pedro Tumusok and Jorunn D. Newth


Eye Networks AS
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