802.11ax Race Is On

Wi-Fi has undoubtedly become a business-critical technology. Companies of all sizes in all verticals need good quality Wi-Fi to connect employees, customers, and Internet of Things devices to the company network. We expect to be able to connect and have a great experience, so when Wi-Fi works, we don't notice. But when it doesn't work, we most certainly do notice, and experience high levels of frustration.

An important business dynamic to consider is that as the world becomes more digital, organizations want to capture data from mobile phones to understand activity and gain new insights. If the Wi-Fi performs poorly, people will shut it off and instead use 4G cellular service -- making collection of mobile data difficult, if not impossible. That's why I say Wi-Fi is business-critical.

Wi-Fi has evolved by huge leaps and bounds over the past decade, but it's still not at the point where it gives us a great experience all the time. This is because most of the innovation has focused on making Wi-Fi incrementally faster. None of the standards, including 802.11ac Wave 2, addressed things like congestion and how to handle overcrowded networks. While Wave 2 networks, capable of getting close to or slightly over 1 gigabit per second, should provide enough bandwidth for most companies, the initial Wi-Fi specs assumed casual usage and those principals have stuck around.

The upcoming 802.11ax standard is the first major overhaul of how Wi-Fi operates. It will reduce congestion, support faster speeds, and improve battery life.

Congestion Management

The biggest change with 802.11ax is the use of a LTE technology, orthogonal frequency division multiple access (ODFMA). This is a super technical way of saying 802.11ax uses frequency division multiplexing.

In a Wi-Fi network, each connection between a client device and an access point (AP) is known as a channel. Prior to ax, Wi-Fi standards hold the channel open until the data transmission has ended, regardless of pauses in the stream. This is akin to being stuck in a grocery store line behind somebody fumbling through a pocketful of change looking for the exact amount. No information is passing between the shopper and the checkout clerk, but the line is still at a stall. Multiuser MIMO (MU-MIMO) brings four lines, but clients still need to wait for a clear channel before it can connect.

ODFMA technology partitions each channel into hundreds of sub-channels, each with a different frequency. The signals then rotate orthogonally -- hence the name -- so they "stack" on top of one another and then de-multiplex. Keeping with my grocery store example, the cashier could handle another customer while the first one looks for that correct change, and then a third while the second writes a check, and so on. ODFMA enables up to 30 clients to share each channel instead of having to wait for one to clear before broadcasting that it's open.

Another benefit of the ax specification is that it combines the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands, resulting in more channels for data transmission. And it includes a feature, called quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), that enables transmission of more data per packet. The net result is that users will experience a network that is far less congested than current Wi-Fi.

Higher Speeds, Better Throughput

Wave 2 Wi-Fi is certainly fast, but 802.11ax will be turbo-charged, running anywhere from 4x to 10x faster. Wider channels come with an added benefit, too. As an example, a 4x increase in speed running over 160-MHz channels will result in a speed of about 3.5 Gbps. The comparable 802.11ac transmission would be only 866 Mbps. A 4x4 radio would then have a total capacity of about 14 Gbps. A device with a radio that supports multiple streams would easily connect at speeds north of 1 Gbps.

In highly congested areas, like the keynote ballroom at Enterprise Connect, network managers can turn channels down to 40 MHz to allow more users to connect but at lower speed. Regardless of configuration and channels in use, 802.11ax should provide a significant increase in throughput and capacity.

Greater Battery Life

Every new Wi-Fi standard improves battery life, as the range is further and data is transmitted faster so the device is doing less work. 802.11ax has an additional benefit from a "wake time scheduling" feature that allows the APs to tell the clients when to sleep and when to wake up. These are typically very short periods of time, but a bunch of short sleep periods can have a big impact on battery life.

Until a short while ago, a lingering question on 802.11ax had to do with when the industry would see release of the first products supporting the standard. Aerohive answered that question in late January when it announced its 802.11ax roadmap. In Q3 2018, the company will have the following three APs available:

  • AP650 -- Indoor dual 5-GHz, 4x4:4 with internal antennas, integrated BLE and USB interface, 2.5- and 1 Gbps Ethernet. List price: $1,399
  • AP650X -- Similar to the 650 but with external antennas and designed for industrial use case so it can handle temperatures of -20C to +55C. List price: $1,399
  • AP630 -- Internal 2.4/5 GHz, 4x4:4 with internal antennas, integrated BLE and USB interface, dual 1-Gbps Ethernet. List price: $1,199

The APs also feature a new twist-lock-style mounting bracket, which should make installation easier. Ease of mounting is something Aerohive has been good at since its launch (and one of my pet peeves has always been difficult to install APs). For example, all of Aerohive's APs have side-mounted Ethernet and power ports. Every other AP vendor I have tried has bottom mount. This may seem like a small thing, but you can connect and disconnect an Aerohive AP without removing the AP from the wall or ceiling. The twist-lock brackets should mean taking an AP down when needed gets even easier.

The 802.11ax era is almost here, and with its arrival will come a much better Wi-Fi experience. Aerohive is the first to announce an 802.11ax product, but it certainly won't be the last.

Learn more about mobility at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Early Bird Pricing, which ends this Friday, Feb. 16, or get a free Expo Plus pass.

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