With all of the focus on 5G these days, we tend to forget about Wi-Fi which actually carries the bulk of mobile traffic relatively effortlessly. That is not typically the case at events where there are hundreds or thousands of people using their mobile devices in a confined area. But the upcoming generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, will change those poor service experiences into noticeable better ones. 802.11ax improves speed, capacity, range, and battery life greatly alleviating the problems associated with overloaded networks in crowded spaces.
It is surprising that about 80% of mobile traffic is over Wi-Fi according to Flurry Analytics and it offers the lowest cost per bit compared to other wireless services. Wi-Fi is so pervasive that mobile users are within range of Wi-Fi networks a majority of the time spent on their devices. So improving the Wi-Fi network experience is a big priority, especially at events where performance is greatly degraded. But handling the high demand for data at large events is a big challenge. At the 2017 Super Bowl, for example, 11.8 terabytes of data was generated according to Extreme Networks so image having to account for that kind of peak capacity.
Rather than improve speed like previous generation of Wi-Fi were design to do, 802.11ax (High Efficiency WI-Fi) is designed to improve overall efficiency to address dense traffic areas. It operates in the already existing 2.4 and 5 GHz frequency ranges and uses MU-MIMO. It utilizes OFDMA to improve spectral efficiency, and has higher order 1024 QAM modulation support for increased throughput. Even though the data rate is only 37% higher than 802.11ac, it will provide data rates that are 4X to 10X higher than existing standards. The wider bandwidth (160 MHz) and multiple channels significantly increase the throughput. The frequency multiplexing greatly improves spectral efficiency and the multi-user MIMO increases the number of multiple streams of data, all greatly improving capacity, especially in dense user areas.
802.11ax will also improve battery life and coverage. Since the range is typically further and data is transmitted faster, a mobile device does not have to work as hard saving power. The new standard also has target wake time (TWT) and scheduling so it notifies devices when to go to sleep and provides a schedule of when to wake reducing battery drain.
In late 2016, Quantenna announced the first 802.11ax silicon with Qualcomm following in Feb of 2017. Microwave Journal recently discussed the 802.11ax standard with Broadcom as they released their 6th generation Wi-Fi products with 802.11ax support in Aug of 2017. These products will have 6X faster connections and 4X better coverage with 7X longer battery life than previous generation products. The access point products support 4 streams of 802.11ax with 4.8 Gbps PHY rates. They support 160 MHz of bandwidth and 1024 QAM with uplink and downlink OFDMA and MU-MIMO. Their smartphone chip combo supports 2 streams of 802.11ax, 1.429 Gbps PHY rate, Bluetooth 5.0+ (including LELR), real simultaneous dual band, 1024 QAM, MU-MIMO and OFDMA. According to RCR Wireless, Broadcom’s Max Wi-Fi AP solutions look to be very well supported, with numerous key 802.11ax access point partnerships announced to date, including Altice, ARRIS, ASUS, D-Link, NETGEAR, Sagemcom, Technicolor, and TP-Link.
There is also 802.11ad which jumps up to 60 GHz offering huge improvements in speed and capacity. However, there is some skepticism about how useful it will be since its range will be limited due to poor propagation characteristics and the cost of mmWave devices is still relatively high. There is also no infrastructure and questionable interoperability between products.
So while the verdict is still out on 802.11ad, 802.11ax is moving right along. So we should see enterprise deployments starting later this year and smartphone capabilities in 2019. With improved Wi-Fi and 5G coming along in the next couple of years, user experiences will be vastly improved and new applications will be enabled with these capabilities.