This content is part of the Essential Guide: An 802.11ax survival guide: Expectations for the Wi-Fi standard

8 common questions about the new Wi-Fi 6 standard

Industry excitement around the next-generation Wi-Fi standard continues to grow, with good reason -- many experts say Wi-Fi 6 is a game-changer. Here's what you need to know.

While the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, has yet to ratify the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, the industry hype machine is already out of the gate. But marketing buzz aside, the next-generation of Wi-Fi holds significant, substantive promise -- with many analysts predicting it will dramatically improve wireless networks for years to come.

Still getting to know the new standard? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

What's the difference between 802.11ax and Wi-Fi 6?

Broadly speaking, the terms Wi-Fi 6 and 802.11ax both refer to the same next-generation wireless technology. The IEEE has called the latest version of 802.11 ax since it formed a committee to develop the standard in May 2014.

Technically, 802.11ax refers to the wireless technology as described in the official IEEE standard, while Wi-Fi 6 indicates Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA)-certified products and networks that support the .11ax standard. However, many networking pros now use the terms interchangeably.

The WFA -- the group that certifies products' compatibility with industry standards and protocols -- has historically adopted the IEEE's 802.11 nomenclature. In late 2018, however, the WFA introduced a new naming system that refers to wireless technology by generation, with the aim of simplifying the terminology for users.

The WFA now calls 802.11ax gear Wi-Fi 6, while 802.11ac and 802.11n products are Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4, respectively. WFA also renamed three earlier IEEE standards, which are less relevant in today's market: 802.11g is now Wi-Fi 3, 802.11a is Wi-Fi 2 and 802.11b is Wi-Fi 1.

Why Wi-Fi 6? Is it faster than 802.11ac?

Yes, .11ax is faster than its predecessors, 802.11ac and 802.11n, with analysts hailing it as the first wireless standard that will reliably break the gigabit barrier. More importantly, though, .11ax works smarter -- not just harder -- by connecting more clients to each access point (AP) at a time thanks to a new feature called orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA).

"It's about making the route between the device and the network more efficient," said John Fruehe, an independent analyst. "Instead of increasing the speed limit on the highway and allowing you to drive faster, they're basically adding more lanes so traffic will flow easier."

It's about making the route between the device and the network more efficient.
John Frueheindependent analyst

To be fully compliant with the new high-efficiency standard, Wi-Fi 6 gear must support both OFDMA downlink -- AP to client -- and uplink -- client to AP.

While .11ac uses only the 5 Ghz frequency band, .11ax devices can also transmit data on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, supporting better throughput.

When will the IEEE ratify the 802.11ax standard?

The IEEE anticipates it will ratify 802.11ax in late 2019 -- almost a year behind schedule, after the first two drafts of the standard failed to get committee approval. The group voted to pass draft 3.0 in July 2018, however, and is now preparing a final draft for submission to the IEEE Review Committee (RevCom). RevCom, in turn, will recommend that the IEEE Standards Board either approve or reject the new standard, with the final vote expected in December.

The WFA has indicated it will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program -- giving its stamp of approval to compatible products -- before the end of 2019.

Is it too early to upgrade?

The wheels of formal ratification turn slowly, but many experts now consider the standard stable enough for early adoption. Wireless analyst and IEEE member Craig Mathias -- principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. -- said he would feel confident investing in draft technology at this point because he anticipates future firmware upgrades will ensure the pre-standard gear's alignment with the final, ratified version.

Mathias and other experts caution that until a significant number of .11ax-capable clients are shipped, however, the benefits of deployment will be minimal. OFDMA requires the use of both next-generation APs and end-user devices; otherwise, the APs revert to backward-compatible mode.

In a 2018 report, IHS Markit analysts Yogita Kanesin and Christian Kim predicted 802.11ax-compatible clients won't start appearing in volume until 2020.

On the other hand, Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst of ZK Research in Westminster, Mass., said networks with compelling use cases -- such as high-density environments -- should consider a more proactive approach.

"In many ways, you want to have the network in place before the clients come," he said. "You don't want people complaining and then you have to do it in a hurry."

Who should consider Wi-Fi 6?

Thanks to OFDMA, Wi-Fi 6 could radically change the game for stadiums, schools, convention centers and other high-density locales -- the likeliest early adopters based on need. Fruehe said any network manager dealing with a lot of congestion and traffic management issues should be the first to consider an upgrade.

"If you have a large number of wireless devices -- in smart buildings, for example, where you have a lot of internet of things devices -- .11ax gives you an opportunity to segment virtual LANs and better manage traffic," he said.

Wi-Fi 6 also includes a new feature called Target Wake Time (TWT), which conserves bandwidth and battery power by scheduling short windows of engagement -- allowing IoT devices to spend more time asleep. A Wi-Fi 6 AP could collect performance data from a smart thermostat once per day, for example, allowing the gadget to spend more than 23 hours in a 24-hour period in low-power mode. TWT also works with mobile devices.

Mathias predicts Wi-Fi 6 will be "the only IoT technology that's really going to matter down the road," as it will allow users to exploit their existing infrastructure.

"You won't need a different set of base stations or gateways -- you can pretty much go with a completely native Wi-Fi installation," he said.

Finally, the analysts agreed any 802.11n users looking to upgrade should opt for .11ax, bypassing .11ac entirely.

"My recommendation would be, 'You held off and you saved your capital. Now go make the transition to ax and ride that for the next two generations,'" Fruehe said.

Mathias added that organizations need to upgrade any networks older than 802.11n as soon as possible, saying he considers .11g, .11a and .11b gear obsolete.

Who doesn't need to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6?

Managers of .11n and .11ac networks in low-density environments with few connectivity problems don't necessarily need .11ax yet, Fruehe said.

He also cautions managers of WAN environments to think carefully about how a slow WAN connection between a branch office and the internet, for example, could undermine a next-generation Wi-Fi upgrade.             

"When you upgrade from .11n or .11ac to .11ax, if your Wi-Fi performance is faster than your WAN, the WAN becomes the bottleneck," Fruehe said. "It doesn't matter how good your Wi-Fi is."

Which vendors offer Wi-Fi 6 gear?

Broadcom, Celeno, Intel, Marvell, Qualcomm and Quantenna are all manufacturing pre-standard Wi-Fi 6 chipsets, and several vendors have already debuted draft enterprise-grade access points -- including Aerohive Networks, Aruba Networks and Huawei.

Will Wi-Fi 6 work with legacy clients?

The IEEE bills 802.11ax -- Wi-Fi 6 -- as fully backward-compatible with all legacy clients. But network managers should conduct their own due diligence before committing to a full-scale deployment.

"We generally are recommending a limited or isolated deployment -- in a different building, for example -- just to gain some experience with the technology," Mathias said. "Make sure it's compatible with the management console. See how backward-compatible it really is with existing 802.11n and 802.11ac clients."

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