What is Wi-Fi 6 and Does Your Organization Need It?

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest generation Wi-Fi technology that focuses on improving efficiency. There are several improvements over its predecessor and we’ll have a close look at some of the key features.

Source: Qualcomm

To start, let’s get the naming out of the way. Traditionally, we called Wi-Fi technologies by IEEE standards, e.g. 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax, which can be a mouthful and confusing for everyday people like us. In 2018, Wi-Fi Alliance introduced a new naming approach that identifies each technology by its generation (or version), for example, 802.11n is Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ac is Wi-Fi 5, and now 802.11ax dubbed as Wi-Fi 6.

Source: Wi-Fi 6 for Dummies, Extreme Networks Special Edition

So what’s all the hype? Let’s examine some of the key features that distinguish Wi-Fi 6 from its predecessors.

Wi-Fi 6 is Faster

Thanks to 1024-QAM modulation, 8 spatial streams, and 160MHz channel width, it pushes the maximum theoretical speed to 9.6Gbps. Its predecessor (802.11ac wave 2) sports 256-QAM, optional 8 spatial streams, and 160MHz width that yields 6.93Gbps data rate.

Increases Capacity

Wi-Fi 6’s improved MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) now supports up to 8 spatial streams–doubled from 4 of its predecessor. MU-MIMO technology uses additional antennas to transmit independent streams simultaneously to a single or multiple clients, resulting in increased capacity and higher data rate.

MU-MIMO 4 streams to 4 different clients
Source: Wi-Fi 6 for Dummies, Extreme Networks Special Edition

Think of each stream like a single lane highway. Say you run a distribution center; with 8 one-lane highways at your disposal, you could send 8 trucks to 8 different customers simultaneously. Alternatively, you could combine two highways (streams) together and send two trucks to a single customer, which essentially doubling the load.

More Efficient

Prior to Wi-Fi 6, devices could only transmit to a single client, and if you have multiple clients waiting for transmissions, they just have to wait for their turn. Wi-Fi 6 features OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), which enables a single transmission to carry different data for multiple clients. Essentially, it divides the spectrum into smaller sub-channels called RUs (Resource Units) and allocates data to individual RU for each respective client.

So back to the distribution center analogy. Say you have 4 customers up north waiting for their deliveries. Without OFDMA, if you have a 40-foot container and customer A orders a carton of eggs, you have to send the entire 40-foot truck packed with only a dozen eggs just for that one customer. With OFDMA, you could pack a carton of eggs for customer A, a home theater for customer B, a kitchen sink for customer C, and a speedboat for customer D all in one trip.

In short, OFDMA technology improves transmission efficiency and reduces latency particularly in high-density environments.

Saves Battery

Wi-Fi 6 introduces a new feature called TWT (Target Wake Time) that reduces client device’s power consumption. Essentially, it schedules when a device goes to sleep and when it wakes up to send and receive data. Not only it prolongs device battery life particularly for IoT, it reduces contention in the medium while inactive clients are off the air.

There are other new features, namely BSS Coloring and WPA3 that are not discussed in this article. However, you can look them up and there are plenty of resources available online on those topics.

So Do You Need Wi-Fi 6?

So a million-dollar question: does your organization need Wi-Fi 6? Well, it depends.

Yes, Wi-Fi 6 is the best Wi-Fi technology till date. Yes, it’s faster, yes it’s more efficient, yes yes yes. But whether you need one depends on what you already have and what you use it for.

What Marketing Didn’t Tell You

If you already have Wi-Fi 5 and you plan to upgrade just for its speed, you may be primed for a disappointment.

While on paper Wi-Fi 6 can hit 9.6Gbps or almost 40% faster compared to Wi-Fi 5, the small print is 9.6Gbps is the maximum theoretical data rate, not the throughput that you get when you run Speedtest or Iperf. Realistically, you only get about 50% to 60% useful TCP throughput after adjusting for overheads. Second, although Wi-Fi 6 supports up to 8 spatial streams, you won’t likely find any client devices in the market today capable of more than 2 or 3 streams. To hit the peak speed, you need a 160MHz channel, and again, chances are it’s unlikely that you get to use a 160MHz channel without encountering any nasty co-channel interference or DFS event unless you have the privilege to use Wi-Fi 6E. Lastly, did I tell you that you’ll need to be really really close to an AP to reap the max speed?

So in a real-world setup, after accounted for overheads, opted for a more viable 80MHz channel on a 2×2 client, realistically you are looking at about 500 to 600Mbps of data throughput vs 400Mbps on Wi-Fi 5. So yes, it’s faster but depending on what you use it for, you may not even notice it.

Thoughts on Wi-Fi 6 Upgrade

My suggestion is if you’re already using Wi-Fi 5 and you are happy with its performance, I’d stick with it. If you use it purely to surf Internet, you probably don’t need to upgrade because unless you have a gigabit backhaul and constantly download large files off the Internet, chances are you won’t see any differences.

If you run a hotel and you have AP in every single guest room, you probably don’t need to upgrade either unless you allow more than 400Mbps bandwidth for each device.

There are many hotels in APAC with less than 100Mbps Internet and they rate limit bandwidth for each guest device. Obviously, you don’t need a gigabit pipe for a 20Mbps connectivity.

So who will benefit from Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 6 shines in high-density environment. So if you run large meeting venues or conference halls that host hundreds or thousands of guests, Wi-Fi 6 would make sense. After all, with OFDMA and MU-MIMO, Wi-Fi 6 is all about efficiency in high-density environment.

Another setting that Wi-Fi 6 could be beneficial is corporations where clients consistently download files off internal file servers. You could potentially get a gigabit throughput with Wi-Fi 6. But again, that only happens when all the stars line up in a perfectly straight line, and I find it easier just to use LAN if I need that type of speed.

For new investments, go for it. You won’t save much if you were to go with Wi-Fi 5. This also applies if you are currently using Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) or god forbid–older Wi-Fi generation (yes, it still exists. I know a renowned 5-star international hotel that still uses 802.11g Wi-Fi) and looking to upgrade. It’s an easy decision. Not only you get the latest and future-proof Wi-Fi technology, you should see a big jump in performance when you switch to Wi-Fi 6.


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