It's been twenty years since the first Wi-Fi equipment shipped, untethering us from cumbersome cabled networks and ushering in the mobile computing era. Soon, manufacturers will change the game again with Wi-Fi 6, a new protocol that promises faster speeds and more efficient operation. Here's why you should think about specifying it in your future laptops and other mobile devices.
Wi-Fi is the easily-digestible industry term for a family of standards under the banner 802.11. Since the protocol was first ratified in 1997, there have been a succession of extensions, each with new features designed to outclass the last.
First came 802.11a and b in 1999, which provided alternatives: higher bandwidth at a shorter range, or lower bandwidth at longer range. 802.11g subsequently promised the best of both worlds. Then came 802.11n, and 802.11ac, using higher bandwidths and new technologies to extend bandwidth at higher frequencies. The next major version is called 802.11ax.
Do you sense a theme here? The naming system for Wi-Fi is hopelessly geeky, which makes life complicated for the average business buyer. Navigating an acronym soup to determine how good your wireless connectivity will be is the last thing that a busy department head or procurement manager wants to do.
That's why the Wi-Fi Alliance finally saw sense and cut through the whole gordian knot with a new, simpler naming mechanism: a simple number. Engineers can still refer to the latest standard as 802.11ax if they like, but for the rest of us, it's Wi-Fi 6. The naming system is retroactive; 802.11ac will henceforth be called Wi-Fi 5, while 802.11n is now Wi-Fi 4. Hurrah.
So, what does Wi-Fi 6 offer that its predecessors didn't?
Wi-Fi offers theoretical speeds of 9.6 Gpbs, up from a theoretical 3.5Gpbs in Wi-Fi 5. You probably won't get those speeds in practice because real-world environmental conditions tend to make data run slower, but all things being equal, your users will see a significant speed boost.
Better high-density performance
Wi-Fi signals are everywhere these days. The average business struggles with more wireless devices than ever before. Wi-Fi 6 uses a variety of technologies to support more devices simultaneously, ensuring that these devices co-exist with each other, avoiding interference as much as possible. These include multi-user multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO), which lets Wi-Fi access points send and receive communication streams between devices at the same time.
Wi-Fi 6 will use less power than its predecessor, using a technology called Target Wake Time. This means that Wi-Fi 6 devices need only wake up to transmit the specific network packets that they need, extending the battery life of mobile devices.
To take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6, it won't be enough to buy laptops that support it; you'll also need a Wi-Fi access point (AP) that can handle the technology, too. That means upgrading your existing wireless infrastructure. Without those upgrades, your Wi-Fi 6 laptop will be constrained by the speed of your access point.
The Wi-Fi Alliance is working with laptop and other mobile device manufacturers to ensure that they build symbols for each Wi-Fi network type into their operating systems. This means that in future, laptops will display more than the ubiquitous fan symbol that lets their users know they're connected to a Wi-Fi network. It will display a number showing them whether they're using Wi-Fi 4, 5, or 6.
Wi-Fi 6 is coming. Equipment with the official Wi-Fi 6 Certified label is scheduled to arrive in late 2019, or possibly early next year. Given that Wi-Fi protocol refreshes only happen every five years or so, it makes sense to wait and ensure that your next procurement round includes this in the specification.