The newest generation of wireless connectivity has been a major topic of discussion in 2020; WiFi 6 and 5G are being touted in marketing pitches for consumer and enterprise products alike. But what really makes these newest generations special, and is it worth investing in the hype right now?
Why this isn’t just an update
5G and WiFi 6 might just sound like buzzwords for marketing campaigns, but they represent some major innovations in how we connect to networks; and more importantly, how our networks support all of our devices.
How WiFi 6 works
There are a few terms that Network experts will throw out while talking about all the benefits of Wi-Fi 6: MU-MIMO, OFDMA, 1024-QAM, and “Wake Time.” These innovations in wireless data transmission unleash a new level of efficiency never before seen in WiFi history. We’ll break them down for you here.
Multiple User- Multiple Input, Multiple Output. It’s a mouthful, but this acronym is just a fancy way of saying that WiFi 6 allows multiple people to send and receive data simultaneously from their devices to their routers.
Doesn’t sound that impressive, does it? Well, what if I told you that your current WiFi can only process one request, from one device, one at a time? It’s a big single-file queue. While previous generations got really good at filling requests from that one line quickly, WiFi6 innovated to open up several, simultaneous streams of data (up to 8 on most available routers). We’ve upgraded from a street to a major data highway.
Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access. Essentially, this feature represents a dramatic change in the way data is delivered to and from your router.
Remember that single street? Imagine that every truck on that street contained one package, for one house. The truck is otherwise empty, but it can only carry that one request. If you’re waiting on your “truck,” you’ll likely experience buffering or load time increases on your device.
OFDMA allows trucks to contain multiple packages for several homes at once; and, those trucks can deliver to multiple homes simultaneously. This reduces latency – the delay between cause and effect (in this case, the delay between a device’s request for data and the delivery of that data).
Related to OFDMA is 1024-QAM, Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. This is simply describing how much data can be delivered in each “truck” over WiFi waves. While OFDMA allows more packages to be packed into a truck, QAM fills those boxes even more full of stuff. As prior versions of WiFi only support 256-QAM, 1024-QAM claims speed improvements of up to 25%, on both uploads and downloads.
With all this data flying around on networks, there is bound to be “noise” that could bog down routers as they sort through every request. In order to combat this, “wake time” connectivity tells a router to only communicate with devices at specific times or under specific conditions, rather that maintaining a constant connection to the device in case it needs to make a request. This not only helps to curb network noise, but it could also help you save battery life.
5G and Millimeter-Wave Technology
5G also boasts increased speeds, connectivity, and efficiency through the applications of some of the tech we’ve discussed above; the major innovation that 5G offers is the use of Millimeter-Wave Technology.
All wireless data transfers are the great-grandchildren of radio frequencies in one form or another; the hardware in your phone or computer is able to turn these waves into 1s and 0s. 5G is currently offered at several levels; “low” and “medium” frequencies being the most common in the current market (which, admittedly, does not work much better than current 4G since it also uses these frequencies). However, taking advantage of higher frequency waves offers a unique opportunity to transmit much more data, much more quickly, in a way current devices have never supported. To put it in perspective, 4G can currently support 100,000 devices in a square kilometer. 5G can support 1 million devices in the same area.
Challenges for the Future of Wireless
Both WiFi 6 and 5G represent the future of connectivity. Our increasing network of “smart” devices, as well as the “Internet of Things” environments in our homes and offices, will require faster, always-on networks that can handle a LOT of data. But the real obstacle isn’t how fast WiFi and cell networks can get. It’s how quickly we can integrate the hardware and infrastructure into our world so that we can take advantage of those speeds.
The high-band frequencies that 5G can accommodate perform poorly over long distances. This requires more antennas, in more places, which take time to install. Most of the consumer products that offer 5G support now are typically offered in forms that only allow for low or medium frequencies, or exclusively high frequencies. Newer generations of phones promise the use of all frequencies to take advantage of 5G innovations, but again, your performance experience is going to be based on how developed the infrastructure of your area really is to handle that level of connectivity.
All in all, if you decide your business wants to invest in upgrading to WiFi 6 and 5G tech, it’s best to keep in mind that we will likely not see the full potential of these technologies for a few years, as carriers provide the groundwork for our future networks. The advantage of upgrading early is that, when that groundwork has been fully laid, you’ll be fully ready.