A Beginner’s Guide to the New 802.11ax Wi-Fi Standard (Wi-Fi 6)

People are no doubt hearing a little more about the new 802.11ax standard that is set for major rollout in 2019. It is also known as Wi-Fi 6 and is eventually set to replace the older 802.11ac/n/g standards.

But what exactly is it, how does it work and is it such an improvement on the current ac Wi-Fi standard?

The 802.11ax standard has major improvements over previous Wi-Fi in several areas, but most noticeably in managing network congestion, which is currently a big problem on many Wi-Fi networks. Through the use of more advanced technology, Wi-Fi 6 is set to allow more devices to connect to wireless access points and allow for smoother browsing and streaming even on crowded wireless networks.

Let’s look in more detail at this new development below. We’ll try to keep this guide relatively non technical as well, so readers who are interested in the subject can still understand, even if they are not qualified networking technicians.

802.11ax Wifi More Devices

The new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard should allow more devices to connect seamlessly on large networks

The Problem With Current Wi-Fi Standards (802.11ac/n/g)

The problem with the current 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, as well as the n/g/b/a standards that preceded it, is that it sometimes struggles to handle network congestion.

In other words, on busy home or business networks where there are a lot of devices connecting, Wi-Fi sometimes struggles to handle all the traffic demands efficiently and some users may find problems with lag, buffering or slow downloads as routers and other access points struggle to keep up with all the bandwidth demands at once.

This is largely built into the way that current Wi-Fi operates in that it runs on a half duplex system. which means that devices on Wi-Fi can only send or receive data at any point in time, and furthermore only one device at a time can send or receive on a wireless network.

Data transfer is in one direction at a time only and to one device at a time only on current Wi-Fi.

This means that devices on a Wi-Fi network have to “queue up” and wait for the router to process other requests before it can send or receive traffic of it’s own. Traffic demands are handled sequentially and not simultaneously.

This is in contrast to wired ethernet connections which run on full duplex and can send and receive simultaneously, putting wired connections at a distinct advantage to Wi-Fi for gaming, streaming and other higher bandwidth activities.

This queue based system runs by a rule known as Carrier Sensor Multiple Access/Collision Avoidance or CSMA/CA. Under this system all devices on a Wi-Fi network must “listen” on the network to see if any other device is sending or receiving.

They can only send or receive themselves once the line is clear. If they try to send when other devices are sending, then there will be a collision of data on the network and the device will have to re-transmit.

In other words Wi-Fi devices have to operate by a general rule of “Try broadcasting —— Oops there was a collision —— Back off ——– Try again” to send data and receive data.

The router has to handle traffic requests for one device at a time and whilst in computing terms this still all happens very quickly, usually in milliseconds, the more devices you add to a network the more complicated it all becomes.

On networks with a lot of devices connecting, the router may struggle to keep up with all these traffic demands and bandwidth or latency intensive activities like streaming or gaming may start to suffer.

Router technology does improve year on year but so do bandwidth demands so network congestion and the buffering and lag that can result from it are still a problem on some busier Wi-Fi networks.

CSMA-CA Explained

CSMA-CA Diagram

Current Wi-Fi standards can only handle traffic requests sequentially, not simultaneously (Image Credit: Tgotschi, Wikimedia Commons).

The flow chart above shows the problem with current Wi-Fi. A Node is just another word for a device on a network trying to send data. If the “line is busy” ie. another device is sending or receiving on Wi-Fi, that device has to back off and wait for the line to become clear.

This can lead to the problems we mentioned above with lag and buffering as the router cannot send the packets needed to each device in time and the user experience suffers as a result.

How Does 802.11ax Wi-Fi Solve This Problem?

The new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard is set to resolve this problem by using some clever new systems with acronyms such as OFDMA, MU-MIMO, 1024-QAM and Target Wake Time (TWT). Feel free to follow the links for more information on each but for this article we want to keep it as non technical as possible.

We could go into more detail on each of these features, but essentially what they all boil down to is that they allow Wi-Fi signals to be dispersed more efficiently and with less interference and also more efficient handling of traffic from multiple devices.

There is more room on the new 802.11ax standard for devices to have their demands handled simultaneously rather than than sequentially or queue based as on current Wi-Fi standards.

Of course it is difficult to fully test these things before widespread implementation but experts are predicting that there could be as much as four times the throughput (transfer of usable data) per device on dense networks than current Wi-Fi.

In short it will hopefully deliver a better Wi-Fi signal more reliably to a wider area and will accommodate greater bandwidth demands from a greater number of devices at once on a network than previous and current Wi-Fi standards.

In practical terms this should hopefully make a difference on busy networks with a lot of simultaneous bandwidth demands from browsers, Netflix streamers, downloaders and gamers. Some households will notice there are problems with lag and buffering when there are several people online at the same time at peak hours, as the router can be overloaded with demands from all the different devices.

There are certain things that can already be done to alleviate this problem, such as using wired connections where possible and configuring Quality of Service settings on your router if available to prioritize certain devices and traffic over others on the network.

Wifi-6 should hopefully further help with this problems by allowing for more efficient handling of wireless traffic. How much it resolves these problems of congestion will only be truly known when it is in widespread use. There are some clever minds behind it though so there should be a noticeable improvement!

802.11ax Info Chart

The new 802.11ax standard will be able to deliver more bandwidth to more devices on dense Wi-Fi networks than the previous Wi-Fi standards (Image used with kind permission of Intel)

What About Compatibility and Adoption?

To actually experience the benefits of the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi, the whole network – routers, devices and access points –ALL need to be 802.11ax compatible.

So for the bulk of people the switch over to this new standard is not going to happen overnight. The cost of upgrading all parts of the network is going to be prohibitive for most.

The technology itself is already in use in a very limited number of routers, but widespread use is set to be rolled out in 2019 and 2020, with more and more 802.11ax compatible devices set to be shipped during the year. It will no doubt be a work in progress as device manufacturers have to refine the design of chip-sets as the standard is gradually rolled out and tested more and more.

Businesses which need the speed and throughput that the new standard should provide may invest to upgrade as the rewards in greater efficiency and coverage may be worth it, as will people struggling with congestion on their home networks.

ISPs may send out new 802.11ax compatible routers to new customers or ones upgrading to higher packages, but this has not been confirmed yet.

It will also potentially be rolled out in public places which have a lot of Wi-Fi users and access points, such as airports and hotels. Stadiums and other sporting arenas which use wireless technology may also roll out the new standard if the increased efficiency helps with network congestion issues.

For many people though there is no rush to adopt the new standard; full roll out will probably take a couple of years. Most people will probably move onto it unintentionally and automatically as they upgrade their laptops and other devices in the next few years.

Many people also do perfectly fine on the current 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard and don’t suffer any congestion problems.

No Rush to Upgrade For Most Of Us

In summary then there is no rush for most people to adopt the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard, despite it’s alleged big improvements over the current 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Many of us do fine on current Wi-Fi anyway and for those that struggle there are cheaper options we can try to manage performance issues rather than upgrading our entire network.

As we upgrade our devices over the next few years to ones with 802.11ax chip-sets, we will start to see the benefits of the new Wi-Fi, but most of us shouldn’t need to force the process. Businesses which need the extra performance can upgrade more quickly and deliberately.

For more technical minded readers, a more in depth breakdown of the functions and benefits of the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard, as well as the differences it has with previous standards, can be found in this superb article on the subject.

Tips For Managing Network Congestion on Current Wi-Fi

For those struggling with performance on busy Wi-Fi networks, what options are there besides upgrading all devices to be 802.11ax compatible during the next few years? The cost of this will be hefty when you take into account computers, laptops, tablets, games consoles and routers all need to be upgraded.

For many people it’s not going to be worth it, yet they may still struggle with buffering or lag. Are there any cheaper ways to deal with congestion on busy wireless networks without having to spend a fortune upgrading all our devices to be 802.11ax compatible?

There are in fact several ways we can reduce congestion on home networks with a lot of users on Wi-Fi:

1. Use Wired Connections – The first thing to do is to always use a wired ethernet connection whenever possible, since they have a couple of distinct advantages over Wi-Fi in that they deliver a strong, unobstructed connection to your router over which you can send and receive data simultaneously.

There is no signal loss from hitting walls and doors as there is in Wi-Fi so the signal from a wired connection is far more reliable and consistent, as well as allowing for bi-directional and simultaneous data transfer.

This immediately reduces problems with congestion and signal loss and helps enormously with things like gaming and streaming.

However the only reason many people are using Wi-Fi in the first place is because they are too far away from the router to run an ethernet cable directly, in which case a Powerline Adapter is the next best alternative.

These come as a set of two plugs, one of which you connect to your router and the other to your device, and the two plugs communicate through the electrical wiring of the house to deliver a strong wired connection to anywhere you like in the home, even at some distance from the router.

They are an excellent, affordable home networking solution and well worth considering for anyone struggling with performance over Wi-Fi who does not want to spend a fortune upgrading all their equipment to be 802.11ax compatible.

They get you onto a wired connection and deliver the benefits of a wired connection we mentioned, without having to run long ethernet cables through the house.

2. Use Quality of Service (QoS) – Another method of managing traffic on a wireless network is to use Quality of Service settings on your router if available. This allows you to configure your router to handle traffic demands in a very specific order so that devices which need priority on a home network, such as those used for gaming and streaming, are dealt with first by the router.

This can reduce the problem of congestion on networks with a lot of users on at the same time, though unfortunately QoS is not available on all routers.

See our article on the subject for a more in depth look at how to configure QoS for gaming (also applies to streaming or any other use).

Here are the very quick general steps for configuring QoS:

  • Find the MAC address of your device, usually in Connection Settings/Status menus
  • Log into your router (type or or into any browser, plus the router password)
  • Find QoS Settings if they are available
  • Select your device using the MAC address you found earlier.
  • Set the priority to Highest or Maximum.
  • The router will now process traffic demands to that device first, before other devices on the same network.
  • Unfortunately QoS is not available on all routers.

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Online gamer and general home networking enthusiast. I like to create articles to help people solve common home networking problems.

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