The next generation of Wi-Fi is finally upon us with lofty promises to improve the user experience by allowing more devices to connect at one time and enhanced data handling to ensure that heavy usage from one user will not negatively impact others on the network.
While the specification for Wi-Fi 6 has not been finalised yet, minor adjustments will continue to be made over the next two years, networking companies are already starting to launch routers and devices that take advantage of it.
Netgear plans to launch its first Wi-Fi 6 enabled router in October and Samsung’s Galaxy S10, which was released earlier this year, was one of the first smartphones to include the standard.
Wi-Fi has always been a frustrating technology to use, with uneven and unpredictable performance due to the large number of factors that can interfere with its operation.
Unlike a cellular signal, which is by and large available without interruption, Wi-Fi is prone to cutting out or losing connection when a user gets too far away from the access point. This problem is especially bad in densely populated urban areas, where neighbouring Wi-Fi networks will interfere with each other. This problem is only getting worse as the number of internet connected devices in the home increases.
Qualcomm’s Wi-Fi guru Rahul Patel said that without improvements to the base specification, this congestion will push users away from the technology.
He believes that Wi-Fi 6 will clear up a lot of the issues experienced in areas with lots of networks located near each other as it integrates a technology called OFDMA which is already being used in cellular networks.
“Wi-Fi typically has used a modulation scheme called OFDM. Cellular uses OFDMA and so in Wi-Fi 6, it will use OFDMA as the baseline modulation.” While it will still be compatible with legacy clients and products, as more devices are upgraded to the new standard users should start to see significant improvements in congested areas.
Under OFDM, each user is effectively allocated an equal size chunk of spectrum that they can use as they wish. With the implementation of OFDMA, a device that is being used to stream a 4K video will be dynamically allocated a greater part of this spectrum versus one that is doing something more simplistic such as loading a webpage or streaming a sound file.
In this way, Wi-Fi 6 networks will be better optimised to accommodate a multitude of users, all with different requirements, without crippling the network for everyone when data-intensive applications are running.
Patel said that unlike Wi-Fi 5, which saw no improvements made in the most common 2.4GHz bands in favour of adding capabilities in the 5GHz bandwidth range, OFDMA should see improvements across the board.
“Wi-Fi 6 is the first time both 2.4 as well as 5GHz saw an improvement in performance,” he said, adding that the congestion problem is particularly pronounced in 2.4GHz due to its increased range and use in other mediums such as Bluetooth or Zigbee.
“When I ask our top mobile phone makers, 90 per cent of their data traffic in the Western world is over Wi-Fi. 85 per cent of that traffic is in the 2.4GHz band.
“It’s largely because the laws of physics say 2.4GHz will have a longer range than 5GHz and so, invariably, people will have a lot more connections into one portal. More and more devices come to play, but you have the same amount of wireless medium to work with.”
While the most significant advancements seen in Wi-Fi 5 were the addition of the 5GHz bands, Wi-Fi 6 one ups this by adding its own unique utilisations in the 6GHz band.
As with 5GHz, it has a shorter range than 2.4GHz which allows it to operate with less interference from neighbouring access points as long as the user is relatively nearby. While 6GHz again has an even shorter range, this effect is much less pronounced than the jump from 2.4GHz to 5GHz.
“It’s not exactly 6GHz, the spectrum is from 5.9GHz to 7.3GHz,” Patel explained. “Every region has its own limitations, but give or take some 500MHz, that chunk of spectrum is available around the world.”
The USA’s FCC, which looks after spectrum allocation there, has already made 6GHz spectrum available. While not officially available in Europe yet, the EU is currently considering opening it up for use in Wi-Fi. Products that support 6GHz are about a year off, Patel believes.
“6GHz is a virgin spectrum,” Patel said. “There’s nothing in it, if you get that 500MHz you could get the benefit of range. Until it becomes popular, until it becomes congested, you would have a significant benefit with 6GHz.”
He noted that the finalisation of the Wi-Fi 6 specification was delayed to allow for the implementation of 6GHz access points.
Current Wi-Fi technologies rely on a system whereby devices will constantly ping nearby networks to gain some basic information from them, such as signal strength or, if connected, to check whether data requests are being made.
Wi-Fi 6 uses a more streamlined version of this pinging system designed around schedules so that a device will only send and receive data at preset times, avoiding the current process where random pings are thrown into the ether to see what responds.
“If you knew when to wake up as a client, because that’s a schedule of time, you will sleep all the time and just wake up at a particular time. So what that does from a mobile handset point of view is [it] improves the battery life,” Patel said.
As a result, the battery life used for Wi-Fi connections on handheld devices should be improved by up to 60 per cent in comparison to older generations.
While not strictly a part of the Wi-Fi 6 specification, WPA3 will be rolling out alongside it. The new security protocol will replace WPA2, which was first introduced in 2004. WPA2 has been shown to be increasingly insecure as hackers have found ways to breaks its encryption in the 15 years since its release. Given enough time, most networks utilising the protocol can now be breached using a cheap setup involving a Raspberry Pi.
“The word security is very misleading at times”, Patel admits, “because it’s only as good as the next hack.”
WPA3 has a few new features lacking in its predecessor. The age of Wi-Fi was still relatively new in 2004; now it can be found in pretty much any public space around the world.
Users that connect to these public networks could previously be tracked by others connected to the same network, as data had to be sent unencrypted. By utilising ‘individualised data encryption’, users on public WPA3 networks can now ensure their connections are fully opaque to other users.
It also includes protection against brute force attacks whereby a hacker may repeatedly try and enter the network by automatically cycling through a database of common passwords. Wireless displays should also have an easier time connecting to networks as WPA3 includes a simpler process for devices such as these that lack controls for password inputs.
Despite the security holes in WPA2, Patel acknowledges that it will take some time before WPA3 becomes commonplace.
The complexity of introducing an entirely new protocol for a platform as widely used as Wi-Fi comes with its own hurdles. While certain features of the specification have already been locked down, adjustments are expected to continue for the next two years before the final release. This piecemeal approach has allowed Qualcomm to implement some of the Wi-Fi 6 features in devices that have already been released. These are typically dubbed ‘Wi-Fi 6 ready’.
Patel expects that the majority of premium-tier phones released in 2020 will be compatible with the new standard.
“I think the operators are going to demand Wi-Fi 6 in almost all phones starting 2021,” he added. “In 2020, it will be more like the higher-end phones.
“As Qualcomm, I think it’s upon us to design chips that will come into the mid-level and entry-level phones. We have a roadmap that drives our products with those price points, we expect to deliver technology in the form that fits the price range.”
Wi-Fi 6 won’t be the end of the journey and development of the protocol will continue with future generations. Patel hints that Wi-Fi 7 will bring about wider channels that will allow for a greater data throughput per access point. He also said they are looking into “carrier aggregation” that will allow devices to operate in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands simultaneously.
“One could be your control channel, one could be your data channel,” he said, speculating that the first products to receive Wi-Fi 7 could hit store shelves by 2024 at the earliest.