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Summary:

802.11ax will focus on individual device speeds rather than overall network capacity, creating a better wireless broadband experience, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Taste_of_Apple Thursday, June 12, 2014

    Reblogged this on Taste of Apple and commented:
    The amount of speed possible and that will be possible in the near future is staggering. Looking forward to this on future Apple devices.

    1. Yeah, it’s a bit ridiculous isn’t it? While I definitely see this technology being applied in dense hotspot networks (backhauled by massive fiber connections) and maybe even enterprises, it’s harder to see the utility of it in a home network where you’ll be limited by a 50 Mbps cable connection. That said there will be seem interesting intra-networking apps that could come out of this: transfer your whole music library to a device in a flash, streaming 4K video over the network, etc….

      1. I definitely agree with you there. I doubt this will impact the average user for quite a while. I’m just amazed that the capabilities of interest speed and some of the innovative technologies being created. It’s an interesting time to be alive. A lot of stuff is border-line Sci-fi and was unthinkable a few years ago. Definitely some cool applications for such technology though.

  2. Albert Flasher Thursday, June 12, 2014

    Proofreading is our friend.
    WOW… just wow!

  3. transferring data between multiple devices may become fast, by the time this arrives 4k streaming on tabs and smartphones would be mundane, and we can even have VPN connectivity compared to that on desktops, maybe even of enterprise levels.
    Basically using the whole desktop or laptop sitting at your place, accessing any file anywhere. But apart from these, its really difficult to see any more promising use of ax standards at home. Maybe Internet Of Things would be much more evolved and mature by that time, so we can turn on geyser, coffee machine, record or stream a feed from other room recorded by a camera, and many other RasPi projects, but those are feasible by current standards too…….
    Lets see what fancy new life it shows us

  4. by 2018 we won’t need wifi

  5. >> it’s harder to see the utility of it in a home network where you’ll be limited by a 50 Mbps cable connection.

    That reminds me of famous quotes like “You’ll never need more than 64K of memory”. I’ve learned over the years that bandwidth is like my household income. The more I bring home, the family will quickly learn how to spend it. LOL!

    1. Manfred, your quote is so good I’m afraid I’m going to have to claim that as one of my own!

  6. Veli-Pekka Ketonen Saturday, June 14, 2014

    I took a more detailed approach on what 802.11ax could be in practice.

    http://t.co/LnrlaagWnF

    This may be pretty interesting if you want to know what kind of technologies are being considerded at this time.