Wi-Fi 6 - how could it transform the wireless market?

Wi-Fi 6 - how could it transform the wireless market?

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A lot of attention in the wireless market this year has been focused on the upcoming arrival of 5G cellular networks, which promise to revolutionise how many gadgets connect with the wider internet, offering much faster speeds and greater bandwidth to cut down on congestion.

But there is also another development set for the coming months that could be just as consequential - if not more so - for many users, and that's the finalisation of the next standard for Wi-Fi communications.

Introducing Wi-Fi 6

Initially known as the 802.11ax standard, the technology will replace the existing 802.11ac standard that's installed in almost every Wi-Fi-capable device today. However, most users won't be aware of this, as the authorities behind the standard have been working on a rebranding effort to make things simpler for less tech-savvy buyers. 

Therefore, for most of us, the next generation of Wi-Fi technology will simply be known as Wi-Fi 6, with the 802.11ac term being retroactively designated as Wi-Fi 5.

President and chief executive of the Wi-Fi Alliance Edgar Figueroa explained: "For nearly two decades, Wi-Fi users have had to sort through technical naming conventions to determine if their devices support the latest Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi Alliance is excited to introduce Wi-Fi 6, and present a new naming scheme to help industry and Wi-Fi users easily understand the Wi-Fi generation supported by their device or connection."

This should give buyers much more clarity about the capabilities of their next hardware, so instead of having to look closely and have a good background knowledge of what each standard consists of, they'll be able to see at a glance whether equipment is ready for Wi-Fi 6, or still on Wi-Fi 5.

What will the new standard offer?

However, the update offers much more than just a more straightforward naming scheme. It also promises a performance upgrade similar to that set to be experienced by 5G when compared to 4G. 

The headline figures will be lower latency and a significant speed increase, with the theoretical maximum speeds for the technology said to be as high as 9.6Gbps, up from 3.5Gbps on today's standard.

That's in the lab, of course, but even in the real world, there should be a noticeable difference, and the effects will only increase as more devices connect. While a single laptop that is the sole connection to a Wi-Fi 6 network may only see a minor speed boost, on crowded networks, users could experience speeds up to four times faster than those achieved using Wi-Fi 5.

This is mainly down to major changes in how it uses bandwidth. Unlike previous generations, which could only send data to and from one device at a time, Wi-Fi 6 allows for simultaneous transfer of data to multiple devices, meaning the days of congestion causing everything to slow to a crawl on busy networks could be nearing an end. As more gadgets and IoT sensors look to connect to Wi-Fi networks in the coming years, this could be vital.

Other benefits of Wi-Fi 6 include improved battery life for devices connecting to these systems. This is the result of a new innovation called target wake time, which can tell a device to shut down its Wi-Fi sensor when it is not needed and wake it up when it is ready to receive the next signal. While each sleep period may be very short, it all adds up and can make a big difference to the power resources needed to stay connected to Wi-Fi.

When will it arrive?

The Wi-Fi 6 standard is set to be finalised this year, so devices such as routers and smartphones that are able to take advantage of the technology should start appearing on shelves soon. Already, some of the latest smartphones, such as Samsung's recently announced Galaxy S10 family, will support the technology.

The simpler naming scheme should make it easier for people to identify gadgets that are capable, and as the standard is fully backwards compatible, there will be no need to continue running Wi-Fi 5 routers and access points alongside the new technology to accommodate legacy equipment.

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