WiFi 6: next-gen Wi-Fi for smarter buildings and cities

By Jacques Visser, Head of Wireless at Vox

As the quality and speed of internet connectivity continues to improve, thanks to technologies such as fibre, LTE and the upcoming 5G, users are responding by connecting even more devices to their local area networks, and engaging in bandwidth intensive tasks such as making latency-sensitive video calls, streaming content in 4K, and adding Internet of Things devices that continually transmit small packets of data.

Wi-Fi networks face two major challenges, namely to be able to counter the incredibly complex security risk, and to provide more efficient ways to handle the growing and diverse amount of traffic as well as bandwidth needs. To solve this, the Wi-Fi Alliance has identified improvements to the current standard, 802.11ac. A key improvement was to focus on usage under typical conditions in order to improve the performance of the entire network, which is fundamentally different from the existing standard where the focus is on peak data rates under perfect conditions.

The partners have further made naming conventions for these technologies easier to understand: instead of making customers wonder what terms such as 802.11a/b/g/n or 802.11ac mean and trying to figure out which is the better product, the industry body is switching to the use of numbers, with this newest iteration - 802.11ax - being branded Wi-Fi 6. This nomenclature will be retrospectively applied to previous technologies, with 802.11ac being Wi-Fi 5, and 802.11n being Wi-Fi 4.

Key features of Wi-Fi 6 include improved performance, particularly in high-density, high throughput environments; better resource utilisation and lower latency enabling service level assurances; serving multiple users simultaneously to boost capacity; flexible channel sizes and target wake time for more efficient IoT support; colour codes to reduce collision between signals from nearby networks; and providing up to 6 times the speed of 802.11ac.

Quality WiFi in high-density environments

Wi-Fi 6 will address the issues experienced by the continued and expanding success of Wi-Fi in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and will be key to delivering the increased capacity and performance required for next generation connectivity. 

One of the focus points was to enhance the efficiency of how access points handle devices simultaneously. It’s not about comparing Wi-Fi speeds; it’s more about providing optimal throughput for all clients. Think of it as adding more lanes to a highway, and each lane is dedicated to a user. This opens up a wide range of new use cases for Wi-Fi 6, including:

  • IoT: this is a core use case which benefits significantly from Wi-Fi 6 with narrow dedicated channels, power saving and target wake time features all allowing IoT devices to make greater use of the network. This includes enabling lower data rates, longer range and reducing power consumption.

  • High density deployments: more capacity for devices in areas such as airports, train stations and in campuses

  • Transportation: lower latency improves support for automated vehicles within industrial environments; and supporting ticketing and payment services at automated road barriers

  • Retail: improved accuracy for Wi-Fi based location determination allows retailers to leverage location information, dwell time analytics and use targeted advertisement systems.

  • Enterprise: improved efficiency and network performance offer better data connectivity to serve high productivity needs. This includes drastic improvements for Wi-Fi calling, and enabling more simultaneous voice calls over extended coverage areas.

  • Smart cities (outdoor): enhanced throughput and extended range to enable better last mile point-to-point or point-to-multipoint wireless links, high density capabilities to support extreme IoT densities, and to support the backhaul for hyper-dense 5G deployments

  • Smart villages (last mile): higher throughput and increased range make it suitable for delivering last mile connectivity as an alternative to conventional copper and fibre, while compatibility with existing 2.4GHz devices ensures ease of adoption

  • Residential (single and multi-dwelling): increased throughput and improved range, more effective use of spectrum in multi-dwelling units to allow for more throughput and less contention between neighbours; smaller channel widths and more simultaneous users facilitate the deployment of a mesh network to extend coverage and seamlessly support lower power IoT

Complementing cellular networks

Nearly 70% of smartphone data is carried over Wi-Fi networks, and it is clear that cellular deployments in licensed spectrum have not been able to keep pace with consumer demands for wireless data. 

This has led to the acceptance of Wi-Fi as an important complement to cellular access, and 3GPP’s definition of its 5G Core Network re-enforces this with the ability to better integrate with Wi-Fi networks as well as its 5G defined New Radio (NR). 3GPP, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, is the organisation that has set standards for mobile telecommunications, right from GSM till today's 5G.

Equipment vendors are set to have equipment available locally later this year, subject to getting approvals from ICASA, while the launch of Wi-Fi 6 compatible System-on-Chip (SOC) and devices were announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

There is also a focus in 5G cellular to improve its competitiveness with Wi-Fi, including defining support for operation in unlicensed spectrum as well as adopting a more flexible authentication framework. While these investments may potentially pay dividends in the years to come, Wi-Fi 6 is already at our doorstep to meet the ever-growing demand for wireless data.

In the meantime, companies should familiarise themselves with Wi-Fi 6, and the ways in which they can use it to enhance their business operations. However, as often observed with the introduction of new technologies, it will be smaller more agile businesses who are the first to adopt, in an effort to gain an advantage over the competition - and bigger companies will eventually be left with no option but to respond similarly.


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