Are you ready for the next chapter of Wi-Fi? Meet 802.11ax

Now that the first wave of 802.11ac Wi-Fi routers and devices are making their way out the door, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have begun to look ahead to its successor: 802.11ax. And this time around, the wireless industry is turning its focus away from overall network capacity to actual connection speed to the device.

What I mean by that is that is that these huge gigabit-plus numbers we so often seen attributed to 802.11ac can be a bit misleading. They represent the overall capacity a Wi-Fi network can support — for instance, 1.3 Gbps in today’s most advanced routers — but only in the rarest of circumstances would any individual device actually be able to connect at such high rates.

As 802.11ac technologies improve they will be able to pack more high-speed connections into a single router and take advantage bigger swaths of unlicensed spectrum. But our individual connections are still peaking at just over 300 Mbps (assuming the broadband connection them can even support those speeds), and typical connection speeds are far slower.

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

802.11ac spec chart courtesy of Meru Networks

With 802.11ax, though, wireless engineers are making sure the individual, not just the network, gets its fair share of attention, said Greg Ennis, VP of Technology for the Wi-Fi Alliance. Though the IEEE is still in the early stages of developing the 801.11ax specifications (we likely won’t have a ratified standard until at least 2018), it has begun setting priorities for the new technology, Ennis said. And at the top of that list is a 4X increase in speed to device, possibly pushing individual device connections into the gigabit range.

New standard, new acronyms

The IEEE is hoping to accomplish this with a new radio technology called MIMO-OFDA. MIMO, or multiple input-multiple output, uses multiple antennas to send multiple streams of data to the same or different devices, while OFDA is a variant of the orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) technologies used in 4G mobile and previous Wi-Fi standards.

The idea is to create a more powerful and efficient radio that can shove more bits into the same transmission. That would create a bigger data pipe to the individual devices, which would in turn add up to greater overall network capacity and better Wi-Fi performance even in the sketchiest of conditions, Ennis said.

“The goal here is not just to increase average throughput, but the average throughput users would actually see in the real world, even in the most dense environments,” Ennis said.

Source: Thinkstock/shutter_m

Source: Thinkstock/shutter_m

Chinese equipment maker Huawei — which is heading up the IEEE 802.11ax working group — is already doing trials of MIMO-OFDA systems and it’s hitting 10.53 Gbps in the lab using Wi-Fi’s traditional 5 GHz band. Whether that means a 10 Gbps to your smartphone or tablet remains to be seen, but it hardly seems relevant given it’s difficult to comprehend what any device could possibly do with a 10 Gbps connection (much less a home broadband connection capable of supporting a high-capacity link).

Faster Wi-Fi to more people

But if 802.11ax lives up its promise, it should be able to squeeze a lot more and a lot faster simultaneous connections out of a single router or hotspot, which would mean a far better experience for everyone on a crowded network.

Though the IEEE won’t ratify 802.11ax until 2018 or later, we might see the Wi-Fi Alliance certify “draft-ax” devices and equipment beforehand just as we saw “draft-n” and “draft-ac” devices before their respective 802.11 standards were finalized. It all depends on how far the wireless industry has progressed with the underlying technology in the coming years, Ennis said.

A range comparison for different Wi-Fi technologies.   (source: Qualcomm)

A range comparison for different Wi-Fi technologies. (source: Qualcomm)

And long before we see the “ax” suffix stamped onto any gadget or router, other combinations of the Wi-Fi alphabet will make an appearance. The Alliance will begin certifying the first 802.11ad, or WiGig, devices next year, supporting extremely close range but very high-capacity links between gadgets and peripherals. A bit further down the road is 802.11ah, which will take Wi-Fi to the 900 MHz band where it will provide narrowband but long-range connectivity to the internet of things.