Top 5 benefits of Wi-Fi 6 (and 3 challenges it won’t solve on its own)
You may have heard by now that the newest wireless standard 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, is upon us.
Many vendors are now incorporating this standard into their latest round of access points (AP) and hardware.
You’re likely intrigued by that alone but also swarmed with a few questions. Like what the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 are outside of the info in manufacturer slicks.
Over the past several years, I've worked in complex Wi-Fi environments where it has been critical to understanding how the various 802.11 protocols work and what has been most prominent in their feature evolution.
In my role as Kelser’s senior vice president of engineering services, I’ve been most curious how this latest 802.11 standard can help our clients.
I’ve summarized some key highlights and technical considerations regarding Wi-Fi 6 and what it can do for you.
Let’s walk through some of the latest features of Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax and some business challenges that it won’t be a silver bullet for.
The top 5 benefits of Wi-Fi 6
- Increased access point capacity
- Greater channel width
- More efficient bandwidth sharing
- Wi-Fi sleeping
- Backwards compatibility
Wi-Fi 6 better supports Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile devices
It’s hard not to look at the capabilities baked into Wi-Fi 6 and not see the many mobile and IoT-focused benefits, including optimizing access for multiple sensors, scanners, and other mobile devices simultaneously.
Wi-Fi 6 helps with scaling your environment without sacrificing user performance. This means your users aren't fighting as much with sensors, scanners, and other autonomous IoT devices for bandwidth. This keeps everyone happy, assuming that an IoT sensor can experience happiness.
1. Increasing access point capacity in support of IoT and mobile devices
To get into the weeds a bit more, there are several features that make Wi-Fi 6 better suited to handle modern IoT and workplace access demands.
Let’s set the stage by considering the average workspace today. Your employees are no longer just a single workstation when it comes to device count for AP or network access. They likely have at least their workstation, a mobile device, and perhaps a smart accessory.
If that workspace is in an industry like advanced manufacturing or warehousing, that number increases. You have to load on top of that an ever-expanding count of sensors, scanners, and other equipment.
You also need to consider the way your employees work today. The use of voice over IP (VoIP) as well as video for real-time communication has increased exponentially. This means you need to be providing a level of usability where your users aren’t experiencing jitter, lag, or becoming completely frozen on both audio and video.
Fortunately, the expanded AP capacity available with the Wi-Fi 6 standard makes that achievable.
This technology and these features are valuable and perhaps even essential to the way these businesses operate today. Device manufacturers won't be moving backward when it comes to front-loading that tech and features in future releases.
2. Greater channel width
One of the concepts that affect speeds is the notion of channel width.
5Ghz channels allow you to aggregate 20Mhz channels into 40Mhz and 80Mhz channels, giving you higher speeds. Now with Wi-Fi 6, you will even be able to reach 160Mhz channels.
That can be eye-popping but keep in mind that spectrum is limited. 160Mhz may only work consistently if you are in a single access point environment such as a home network. If you try to run multiple APs at 160Mhz, you will surely see interference, and it won’t work as well as you’d like it to on paper.
But even if you have an environment with multiple APs, Wi-Fi 6 still shows improvement due to auto-channel switching between 20, 40, 80, and 160Mhz as the environment allows. This gives you the bandwidth when you need it, and then can back off to 20 or 40Mhz if demand for network resources increases across a larger deployment with contending channels.
3. More efficient bandwidth sharing
There are a couple of additional ways that Wi-Fi 6 brings efficiencies to the devices on the network, resulting in better speeds.
For starters, Wi-Fi 6 has made advancements in the number of antennas it can support, using a maximum configuration of 8x8:8. More antennas allow for more concurrent communication, improving speeds, and even allowing multiple users to “talk” at the same time (MU-MIMO functionality).
Older standards and APs were limited to one user “talking” at a time.
The 802.11ax standard also does a better job of splitting up user time and “scheduling” the data which makes for a better end-user experience and brings improvements to capacity.
Much like increases to speeds for the 802.11n and 802.11ac standards due to better signal coding and modulation, Wi-Fi 6 boasts improvements to modulation using something known as OFDMA.
OFDMA is probably the most important improvement to the 802.11 standard, allowing a mixture of users/devices at various needs and speeds to better share the bandwidth. This also takes advantage of modulation techniques that provide for another increase in speed provided that the signal is clean, and the user is close to the AP.
At the end of the day, all these improvements, especially when used today will result in improved performance and capacity. Though your users won’t know it, they’ll be in less competition with the person next to them for bandwidth.
With the previous standards, the fact of the matter is if one user is doing a hefty download then other users can potentially suffer.
With Wi-Fi 6, you will be less impacted by any single user.
4. Wi-Fi sleeping
With previous wireless standards, devices were either connected or they weren’t. Completely binary.
By comparison, Wi-Fi 6 has protocols to effectively put certain device’s Wi-Fi to “sleep” when it’s not being used. This frees up bandwidth by “sleeping” connections that aren’t in use. On paper, it would also lead to greater battery life in devices that support Wi-Fi 6.
5. Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible
Yes, the 802.11ax standard itself and the access points supporting it are backward compatible.
802.11 ac, n, g, b, a are all covered and devices that use them should be good to go. However, it is always good to test out your devices in advance with your access point of choice. Especially older b devices, such as scan guns, just to make sure there aren’t any issues.
Also keep in mind that these outdated standards, especially 802.11b, create terrible bottlenecks, and do not allow you to fully experience all the benefits of the new Wi-Fi 6 features.
3 challenges that Wi-Fi 6 won’t solve on its own
Wi-Fi 6 has a wealth of new features that make it a marked improvement over previous wireless standards rather than an incremental bump.
While there are many benefits to the new wireless standard, there are still some issues that Wi-Fi 6 alone won’t be able to solve.
1. Coverage issues
A common misunderstanding is that bigger, stronger access points alone will give you better coverage. For example, just rolling out new APs that support Wi-Fi 6 alone won’t inherently give you some massive coverage improvement.
This is because there can be a fundamental misunderstanding of what coverage entails and what influences it.
Coverage indicates the reach of an access point and is dictated by its transmit power and ultimately the transmit power of your device.
The capability of the transmit power in an access point is determined by a country’s regulatory domain and is set per channel in both the 2.4 and 5Ghz space.
For example, the max transmit power of channel 149-161 in the 5Ghz band is 23dBm as dictated by the FCC in the United States. So as long as an AP is using the max defined by the FCC, it’s not a possible area of differentiation from one AP to the next.
The type of gain on antennas used probably plays more of a role in coverage and power. But in deployments where you use the internal antennas on an AP, expect your maximum power to not exceed those values dictated by your regulatory domain.
As you evaluate different access points for your requirements, make sure to review the transmit power of the AP, as it may not change from one model to another within a single vendor’s product lineup.
Why it won’t solve coverage issues on its own
If transmit power is capped and roughly the same, what makes one AP better than others?
Vendors go about answering this issue and differentiating themselves in a few ways. Some larger APs usually tout more spatial streams and antennas. This improves the “capacity” of the access point, and ultimately the “speed” that your users can obtain.
As we discussed earlier, if you’ve ever seen specs like 4x4:4 or 4:4:3 or 2x2:2, that’s the number of transmit and receive antennas and the number of spatial streams of an access point.
Keep in mind that most handheld devices like phones have only been able to support a max of 2 antennas because of heat restrictions. So, a user on their phone may not see huge improvements regardless of antenna configuration due to those device limitations.
2. Speed and performance outside the internal network
Upgrading to APs that support Wi-Fi 6 will bring improvements specific to your internal network. You'll likely also see some as your users browse to outside services like cloud file shares and the internet at large.
However, your speed and performance accessing outside assets and resources are still dictated by your internet service provider (ISP).
If you have a 10MBps down agreement with your ISP for your 50 employees, all the latest and greatest equipment in the world isn’t going to help you much.
Why it won’t solve external network speed and performance issues on its own
This isn’t a straightforward answer because many factors can influence these issues. However, specific to the ISP speed or data cap scenario above, I believe that you never want to be the source of your bottleneck.
What I mean by that is, having current equipment with the appropriate specifications for your needs takes the onus off you. It instead places that bottleneck on your vendors and allows greater flexibility for improvement.
Though you may not have the adequate internet speed or service to keep up with your business today, it’s far easier and quicker to upgrade an internet service plan as desired compared to upgrading your wireless infrastructure after the fact.
3. Improving the functionality of unsupported devices
Say you upgrade all your APs to newer models that support Wi-Fi 6. This project has been touted internally with all the new benefits that your end-users will experience.
They enter the office the morning after project completion expecting to be blown away. Instead, the network performance is the same as it has always been. What gives?
It may also occur to you at that moment that your office is still using the iPhone 10 for employees as you try to squeeze the remaining value out of them.
Why it won’t provide improved functionality for unsupported devices
Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible with previous wireless standards so devices that don't support Wi-Fi 6 will still function. However, they won't get those additional features and benefits above such as the Wi-Fi "sleeping" or improved battery life.
Just because you are upgrading your APs doesn't necessarily mean that you need to upgrade your wireless devices all at the same time. If you're able to, that's brilliant.
However, you can still experience the benefits of APs that are more capable than your current models.
Ensuring that your upgraded APs also support Wi-Fi 6 helps set up your environment for improved performance presently. But it also sets you up for another functionality boost when you inevitably refresh your end-user and IoT devices down the road.
Improve your wireless network performance with a wireless site survey
While the Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard holds a lot of potential and boasts some great features, simply going out and buying Wi-Fi 6 capable hardware could be a costly mistake if you don’t plan first.
The best way to improve the performance, speed, coverage, and efficiency of your wireless network is to first perform a site survey.
A site survey will give you the best understanding of your environment, how best to serve your end-users, and where access points should be placed for optimal coverage (Wi-Fi 6 capable or otherwise).
Wireless network planning and architecture are more of a science than an art. I’ve performed numerous site surveys with Kelser and seen it all. From too many APs and too few APs to APs being too close together, too far apart, or that are placed in a way that prevents the AP from working to its full potential, and more.
These may sound like small issues, but they can dramatically impact the performance of your wireless network, the experience of your users, and your costs to run/maintain that environment.
You’d be astounded by the difference having an optimized wireless network can make.
If your business is in Connecticut, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island, talk with my team about your wireless concerns.
We’ll help you dig down the root issue that is responsible for your wireless issues or concerns and work together on the next steps to get your business the best wireless experience you've ever had.