Everything You Need to Know About WiFi 802.11ax (AKA WiFi 6)

VirtualArmour Team

August 5, 2021

Everything You Need to Know About WiFi 802.11ax (AKA WiFi 6)

Over the last year, there has been a lot of chatter surrounding WiFi 6 (also referred to by its IEEE standard name 802.11ax). But what exactly is WiFi 6? In this educational article, we will discuss what makes WiFi 6 different from its predecessors, WiFi 4 and WiFi 5, so you can get the information you need to make informed decisions about upgrading your WiFi network.

What is WiFi 6?

In 2020, the FCC announced that it would be expanding access to the broadband spectrum for unlicensed traffic. This means that routers are now able to broadcast their signals in the 6GHz range, as well as the 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges originally designated for unlicensed traffic. Much like widening a road to accommodate increased traffic, this decision means there is now more WiFi to go around.

This is critical as the number of devices in each home and business continues to rise. The days of a single device per employee and a shared household computer are long gone; according to Statista, the average American household was home to 10.37 connected devices in 2020, and that number is likely only going to continue to increase. Many employees are now equipped with a laptop and a company phone, and with the continued rise of IoT devices in both homes and workplaces, the demand for bandwidth will only increase. 

What are the Benefits of WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 offers a wide range of benefits, including:

Enhanced Security Features

WiFi 6 offers enhanced encryption and other significant security enhancements while simultaneously eliminating some of the weaknesses of older WiFi technologies such as pre-shared keys. This is great news for security-conscious hotspot providers as well as facility managers and visitors. 

All WiFi 6 devices are designed to handle WPA3 encryption, which offers features like robust password protection and 256-bit encryption algorithms, both of which make it harder for cybercriminals to hack into your network

Faster Speeds

WiFi 6 promises speeds up to 30% faster than WiFi 5, which means your employees can spend more time working and less time waiting for web pages and internet-based programs to load. 

Increased Range

In situations when you are relying on a single router, WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 offer approximately the same range because WiFi range is dictated by the radio frequencies the APs can access (5GHz and 2.4GHz). However, if you switch to a WiFi 6 mesh system, you can increase coverage by placing the APs farther apart and use WiFi 6’s faster speeds to make up for the increased distances. Being able to place APs farther apart can be incredibly beneficial in situations where physical cabling is either inconvenient or impossible to lay. 

Though the increased distance between the APs will cause a small decrease in network speed and performance, this decrease is so minuscule you and your team likely won’t notice a difference.

Reduced Latency

Latency (the amount of time it takes for something to load) remains a large problem for many WiFi users. How fast and reliable your WiFi is depends on a variety of factors, including the signal strength of your connection and how many other devices are on the network. By expanding bandwidth access, your network will now be able to support more devices than before, allowing all WiFi traffic to move faster and increasing network reliability. 

WiFi 6 achieves this using OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), which is an extension of OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) architecture (which is used by WiFi 4 and wiFi 5). While OFDM relies on a single-queue style system, which requires each device to patiently wait its turn to receive data, OFDMA allows the router to transmit data to more than one device at a time, dramatically reducing or even eliminating the need to queue. 

It does this by splitting traffic into smaller packets, so each device can receive a small amount of the data it is waiting for and pass that information on to the end-user while it is waiting for the rest of its packets. This functionality is great for high-traffic environments such as stadiums, conference centers, and large retail environments where employees, visitors, and customers are going to need WiFi access. 

Increased Power

Connecting to a WiFi network requires a proportionally significant amount of power, particularly if a device is moving in and out of WiFi range. Wider ranges, and the ability to comfortably support more devices, means that devices will need to expend less energy maintaining a reliable WiFi connection, which means your devices will be able to go for longer between charges. 

WiFi 6 accomplishes this using target wake times (TWTs, also called wake time targets), which allow the APs to communicate with devices and let them know how long they will be left waiting between transmissions. By providing devices with this information, the devices can “sleep” between transmissions, only waking up when the device needs to connect again. These short bursts of downtime significantly reduce how much power the battery needs to expend to maintain a WiFi connection, which can extend the battery life of laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other WiFi-connected devices on your network. 

Better Throughput & Reduced Congestion

When there are more devices on your WiFi network than the network can comfortably serve, WiFi performance suffers, and some devices may lose connection entirely. Because WiFi 6 uses OFDMA, it has better MIMO (multiple in/multiple out). 

Using multiple antennas, each AP is able to talk to several devices simultaneously, while WiFi 5 networks can only respond to one device at a time, creating bottlenecks and slowing down the connection of every device on the network. Being able to respond to multiple devices at once reduces the amount of time each device needs to wait for its turn, increasing speeds for everyone.

Another advantage of WiFi 6 over its predecessors is BSS (basic service set) “colors”. These colors, labeled 0 through 7, are incredibly useful when multiple APs near one another are transmitting on the same channel. While older WiFi deployments typically assigned multiple APs to the same transmission channels (a necessary approach given the limited amount of bandwidth available), causing traffic jams and slowing down everyone’s connections. To make matters worse, devices weren’t able to effectively communicate or negotiate with each other to maximize channel resources, increasing congestion further. 

Using the color-coded system, APs can assess signals from each color and determine whether they can use the spectrum at the same time as another device without causing interference by selecting a color that isn’t currently in use. 

It’s like if a grocery store had seven checkout lanes open instead of one: The old WiFi standards required all shoppers to cram into a single checkout lane, but the shoppers can talk to one another, so sometimes two or more shoppers will try to purchase their items at the same time, causing a traffic jam while the cashier sorts everything out. The color-coded system allows each shopper to assess which of the seven checkout lanes has the shortest line (or ideally no line at all) and line up there, improving efficiency and getting everyone out of the store faster. 

WiFi 6 offers a wide range of benefits from both a security and usability perspective. Are you considering upgrading to WiFi 6? Our experts have experience with a wide range of technologies, verticals, and industries and work with organizations of all sizes to support their IT and networking needs.

For more information about WiFi 6, or to get started planning your upgrade, please contact our team

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