- Everyone who uses Wi-Fi appreciates quick connections. IEEE 802.11ax is packed with improvements that provide not only a faster connection, but greater range and resiliency as well.
- IEEE 802.11ax has improved Target Wake Time (TWT), which significantly improves the battery life on your smartphone and other mobile devices. This improvement in the wake and sleep efficiency is beneficial for maintaining Wi-Fi connections.
- Better reception is another improvement of 802.11ax, which is especially beneficial in areas with overlapping coverage, such as airports and multi-unit apartment complexes.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) develop the 802.11 specifications that define wireless networking. Like any technology, the 802.11 standard is ever-evolving. For example, many Wi-Fi routers nowadays support 802.11ac, published in 2013. The AC standard, called Gigabit Wi-Fi, has the following properties:
- It has a maximum speed of 1.3 Gbps.
- It operates on the 5GHz band.
- It can connect up to four devices simultaneously via multi-user, multi-input, multi-output (MU-MIMO) technology.
What is 802.11ax?
The IEEE is hard at work on the 802.11ax standard and released it publicly in 2019. You can read the specifications on the IEEE website. National Instruments’ 802.11ax whitepaper is also worth a read.
Wi-Fi 6, also known as the next-generation 802.11ax, is a recent step in the journey of nonstop innovation. 802.11ax, also known as High-Efficiency Wireless, is an amendment of the IEEE that defines the modifications to the previous version (802.11) and the improved high-efficiency operation in frequency bands between 1GHz and 6GHz. There are many improvements and features in 802.11ax, including greater flexibility, efficiency and scalability, which allow for higher speed and capacity.
Perhaps your question at this point is, “Why should I care about 802.11.ax?” To answer that question, let’s consider the chief benefits that 802.11ax brings to the table.
Multi-input, multi-output technology allows a wireless access point to work with up to four separate data streams simultaneously. 802.11ax brings MIMO with orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) to the table. What that means in a nutshell is that 802.11ax routers can broadcast four MIMO spatial streams, giving you four times the maximum theoretical bandwidth per stream.
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Assuming a single 802.11ax stream of 3.5 Gbps and multiplying that by four, you’ll get a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 14 Gbps. That’s fast, but there are always mitigating factors, such as which channel width on the 5GHz band the wireless access point uses.
Why does anybody need that much network speed? Well, imagine performing any of these actions with nearly zero lag:
- Streaming 4K (Ultra HD) video
- Downloading full retail games to your console
- Meshing your smart household appliances with no latency
Given the cost of some high-end Wi-Fi hardware, it’s good news that 802.11ax will be backward-compatible with the existing – and in some cases older – 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standards.
The Wi-Fi standards moved to the 5GHz band so as to reduce contention with 2.4GHz household appliances. 802.11ax does indeed operate on the 5GHz band, but the IEEE designed it specifically for high resiliency. In fact, the informal title of the 802.11ax specification is High-Efficiency Wireless, or HEW.
The IEEE is architecting 802.11ax to provide steady, resilient performance even in Wi-Fi-dense areas. For example, think of how many wireless local area networks (WLANs) compete on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands in a typical high-rise apartment building.
As of this writing, we know very little about the effective indoor and outdoor range supported by 802.11ax. For comparison, 802.11n, the current-generation Wi-Fi standard, has an approximate indoor range of 70 meters, or 230 feet. Its approximate outdoor range is 240 meters, or 820 feet.
What are its features, and what problems does 802.11ax solve?
The standard 802.11ax brings with it a wide range of new features, including a much-needed increase in the standard quality of service, which is an industry term for how Wi-Fi resources are used. Here are some of the new and improved features you’ll see with the standard 802.11ax, according to Network World:
- Target Wake Time: The TWT enhancement helps to extend the battery life on smartphones and other mobile devices through better sleep and wake efficiency, which means maintaining the connections of Wi-Fi when smartphones and other mobile devices are inactive (the older version used a lot of battery life when not in use).
- Better Wi-Fi experience: 802.11ax addresses the complexity of frequency bands used in Wi-Fi. It improves the capacity and allows individual devices to connect to Wi-Fi more quickly and easily. This is especially beneficial in areas with overlapping coverage, such as school settings, apartment buildings, airports and train stations. 802.11ax has improved performance, especially in these areas of overlapping coverage.
- Downlink and uplink OFDMA: Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access increases user data rates and reduces latency, especially devices with short frames or low data rate requirements, such as loT devices. 802.11ax has multi-user capacity, meaning a transmission can be divided in the frequency domain with various groups of subcarriers with frames for different destinations.
- Outdoor operation: Various features improve the outdoor performance, but the most important is a new packet format where the most sensitive field is now repeated. Other features include modes that introduce redundancy to allow for error recovery and longer guard intervals.
If there’s a bottleneck to the IEEE 802.11ax release and adoption process, it’s certification and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) support. Intel and Qualcomm have both announced that chips will be ready within the year for the new standard. Asus and D-Link have both announced routers that will run on it. But it will be some time before the new standard becomes the standard.
The Wi-Fi Alliance certifies Wi-Fi interfaces and equipment against the published IEEE 802.11 standards. Although the IEEE released the 802.11ax specification in 2019, there is no saying how long the certification process will take.