With the increase in devices connecting to wireless local area networks (WLAN), customers are demanding more bandwidth and faster throughput. The introduction this year of more products adopting the latest Wi-Fi 802.11ax standard aims to answer this demand.

This new standard replaces the outdated 802.11ac. Introduced in 2014, 802.11ac was just not equipped to handle environments where many devices are vying for bandwidth. An amendment intended to improve the Wi-Fi user’s experience came later. But this update, which provides higher data rates that encourage more multi-user throughput, is also barely keeping up with today’s connected lifestyles.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) new standard, also known as high-efficiency wireless (HEW) and Wi-Fi 6, is designed to provide a faster and more reliable experience. The first tech to bridge the performance gap towards 10 gigabit speeds, 802.11ax delivers a four-fold increase in average throughput per connected device. Theoretically, 802.11ax can deliver a single stream rate of 3.5Gbps. When combined with multiplexing technology, it can deliver four simultaneous streams to a single device for a total rate of 14Gbps.

802.11ax is becoming the de-facto medium for internet connectivity. If you’re a broadband installer or technician, you realize that your customers expect you to make sure they have all the bandwidth they need. As more people adopt smart home technology, demand for media distribution enclosures, as well as wireless mesh networks, grows. But the technology that sends and receives that signal needs to be topnotch as well, and we’ll see more people clamoring for high-end routers and modems.

The age of the multi-user

The advent of 802.11ax has opened up the opportunity for devices with multi-user (MU) capabilities. On supported tech, transmissions between an access point and multiple clients can occur at the same time.

MU capabilities exist in devices that use multi-user technologies such as orthogonal frequency division multiple access(OFDMA) and multi-user-multiple-input multiple-output (MU-MIMO). OFDMA allows for multiple-user access by subdividing a channel, while MU-MIMO uses different spatial streams.

Of the two, MU-MIMO is the better known. The smart antenna technology can support multiple concurrent downlink transmissions and enable more efficient spectrum use, higher system capacity and reduced latency by supporting up to four simultaneous user transmissions. MU-MIMO improves overall efficiency in networks where a single access point (AP) must communicate with multiple clients simultaneously.

MU-MIMO is most effective at close to mid-range, whereas OFDMA is effective at all ranges, close, medium and far. Moreover, MU-MIMO best serves multiple users with full buffer traffic, while OFDMA is utilized when multiple connections transmit relatively limited amounts of data.

Besides supporting more users, 802.11ax can increase energy efficiency—devices can enter a sleep state after every data transmission. Though most of the efficiency benefits are a result of multi-user OFDMA, the 802.11ax amendment allows for the combined use of multi-user OFDMA and MU-MIMO at the same time.

Other benefits of 802.11ax include improved data transmission between devices in your network and less wait-time for data transmissions.

What’s next in Wi-Fi 6

The first generation of 802.11ax devices is upon us. This is good news for those who want better and faster Wi-Fi — and can afford it.

Currently, good quality 4×4 MU-MIMO routers are available for well under $500. However, cutting-edge devices, like the Nighthawk AX8 (model RAX80), run in the $500 range.

As well, to take full advantage of a Wi-Fi 6 router’s capabilities, host devices must also support Wi-Fi 6. Most do not, although we are likely to see more Wi-Fi 6-enabled laptops and other devices as the year goes on.

A Wi-Fi 6 router is backwards compatible though, and can still handle existing devices just fine. At this point, it’s a matter of deciding on whether the price tag for a Wi-Fi 6 model is worth the cost of future-proofing your networks.