During CES 2019 many Wi-Fi networking vendors have been releasing products featuring the new 802.11ax standard which has been given the friendlier name of Wi-Fi 6, but what actually is it and how will it improve your home Wi-Fi?

While Wi-Fi is hardly the most interesting of technologies at CES, it is something that many of us rely on daily. Poor Wi-Fi signal is possibly one of the most frustrating (first-world) problems, and this is why we have seen such a large growth in Mesh Wi-Fi systems, which improve range and reliability in the home.  

TP-Link AX1100

802.11ax/ Wi-Fi 6 is the successor to 802.11ac/ Wi-Fi 5 which is what you are probably using for most of your Wi-Fi connections nowadays.

802.11ac / Wi-Fi 5

802.11ac works on the 5 GHz spectrum giving it much more bandwidth than the previous 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4). On a single connection this can provide up to 433 Mbps, but depending on the router and client multiple connections can be made at ones using MIMO (Multiple Input / Multiple Output).

So, a tri-band router such as the Netgear Orbi will offer 2.4GHz (400Mbps) + 5GHz (866Mbps) with the 3rd band using 5Ghz and reserved for the backhaul. So, in this case, 2 bands are used at 5Ghz achieving 433 Mbps + 433 Mbps for 866Mbps.

802.11ax / Wi-Fi 6

This standard operates on both the 2.4/5 GHz frequency which will eventually incorporate more bands between 1 and 7 GHz as they become available. As with previous generations, it will be fully backwards compatible, so you don’t have to worry about if your phone or laptop will work with your new 802.11ax router.

With 802.11ax it is less focussed about pure speed but targets the ability to handle multiple devices better. This is arguably the most important aspect of Wi-Fi in a world where all our devices are Wi-Fi enabled. A house of five people will quickly bog down the Wi-Fi performance when multiple users are accessing high bandwidth services such as streaming 4k, and this gets much worse in commercial environments.

Netgear Orbi RBK50 with 802.11ax

The TLDR is that the new standard has a nominal data rate is just 37% higher than 802.11ac but it has a four-fold increase to average user throughput due to more efficient spectrum utilisation and improvements for dense deployments.

And the TLDR for that is that more users can connect at the same time while maintaining network performance.

OFDMA

OFDMA allows an access point to offer each connected client device one or more Resource Unit (RU). Each RU consists of several extremely narrow-bandwidth “tones,” or subchannels, within the overall Wi-Fi channel itself. And this makes it possible for multiple client devices to transmit simultaneously. This avoids issues with packet collisions and significantly reduces the issues with network degradation due to a large number of users.

Bi-directional MU-MIMO

802.11ax's new implementation allows multiple client devices to share the available streams from the access point for both download and upload. This combined with OFDMA should, in theory, allows multiple users to transmit at high speeds without interfering with one another simultaneously.

There are multiple other technologies used to improve the 802.11ax including Trigger-based random access and Spatial frequency reuse but they mostly all work on improving the overall performance for multiple users.

At the moment this standard is not formalised so its specification may change over the year.

But what about 802.11ad (WiGig)?

Just to make things a little more confusing, there is the 802.11ad which you will find one some high-end gaming routers. It works on a completely different frequency than the above standards, operating in the 60Ghz range, and it does not allow multiple connections.

With it operating at such a high frequency is has a very poor level of coverage with walls degrading the signal far more than the other spectrums. So, this standard is best for when you are in eyesight of the router. The high frequency does mean it offers considerably more bandwidth than current standards, with up to 6.7 Gbit/s compared to 3.5 Gbit/s of 802.11ac.

While this is great for gamers in close proximity of a router, I would suggest for most users it is not that important.  There is also 802.11ay which is the follow up to this standard, but considering 802.11ad is already quite niche I would say it is not worth worrying about yet.

What clients support 802.11ax?

As it currently stands, there are none. Well, there is the Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX201 Wi-Fi adaptor, but I don’t know when that would be available.

Though there are not a great deal of commercially available routers either the ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 which was apparently the worlds first tri-band 802.11ax router but this doesn’t appear to be available in the UK.

Then there is ASUS RT-AX88U is available from Scan for £313.99 and the unusually designed Netgear RAX80-100EUS for £299.00.

However, there is some positive news as far as clients go, Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 is 802.11ax-ready, though not fully compliant. As the SD855 was developed before 802.11ax has been finalised, they were only able to make it supports a subset of the 802.11ax standard.

So, by the time the likes of the new 802.11ax compatible Netgear Orbi RBK50 or the TP-Link Deco X10 it is likely there will be several flagship phones supporting the standard.

Overall 802.11ax is quite exciting, but for the vast majority of us, it will have little to no benefit for at least a year or so when more devices are compliant.

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