FAQ: 802.11ax Wi-Fi

Taking a look at the next big thing in wireless networking

wi fi 80211ax
Credit: Thinkstock

The next big new thing in Wi-Fi networks will boast groundbreaking technology, but it might not arrive for a couple years yet. Here’s the lowdown on 802.11ax, for now:

Q: 802.11ax – what is it?

Well, you’ve heard of 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac wave 1, and 802.11ac wave 2…

Q: OK, OK, I get it!

Fine. In any case, 802.11ax is the next wireless communications standard in the IEEE’s long-standing series of 802.11 standards, which form the basis for the technology we generally just call Wi-Fi.

Q: Standards?

The IEEE standards, put simply, are agreed-upon sets of technological capabilities and features that all devices that want to call themselves, say, 802.11ac, have to have. It’s to make sure that a phone from Samsung works just as well with a Wi-Fi access point made by Aruba as it does with a router made by D-Link or Cisco. If it’s 802.11-whatever-certified, it’ll work with everything else certified for that standard.

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Q: But new wireless tech gets invented like every day.

It certainly does, and the IEEE has a heck of a time keeping up with it. The standards process is a rigorous one, and it’s necessarily time-consuming. The newest official standard is 802.11ac, which was published in 2013. Before that, 802.11n went official in 2007.

Q: So 802.11ax isn’t fully cooked, is what you’re saying.

Correct. It’s a work in progress, but it’s got a lot of exciting new capabilities – 802.11ac broadened the multi-antenna capabilities (MIMO, or multiple input, multiple output) introduced in 802.11n, but 802.11ax will be able to subdivide signals even further, using a technology called MIMO-OFDM. (Orthogonal frequency division multiplexing, before you ask.)

Q: What’ll MIMO-OFDM do?

Broadly, increase throughput – second-wave 802.11ac technology advertises potential gigabit speeds, although that’s unlikely to be reachable in practice, but 802.11ax’s goal is to deliver as much as five times the capability.

Q: Is that the big point of 802.11ax, then? A simple speed upgrade?

Not exactly. 802.11ax is particularly aimed at high-density Wi-Fi deployments, improving not only speed, but the ability of connections to stay active even when interfered with heavily. If you’ve been to a technology convention or trade show lately, you’ll know that the existing co-existence features built into Wi-Fi aren’t really sufficient to particularly dense environments.

Q: It’s an efficiency thing, then.

Yeah, largely. In essence, it offers a more sophisticated system for routing bits of messages where they need to go.

Q: Sounds good – gimme gimme gimme!

Not so fast – the IEEE probably won’t drop the final certification on 802.11ax until about 2019, and it’s far from clear when certified hardware is going to start coming out. To be fair, hardware has been released before formal certification as far back as 802.11n, but that’s not necessarily something to rely on, at least for business users.

This story, "FAQ: 802.11ax Wi-Fi" was originally published by Network World.

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