Almost all of us use wireless networking every day. From our smartphones, laptops, and tablets, to our thermostats and cameras, it is all around us. I think everyone will agree that the faster we can get this network, the better. Everyone hates stuttering or buffering video and audio. 802.11ax promises to help reduce bottlenecks and increase speeds but to understand it’s advances, we need to start a little earlier and get a brief recap of previous wireless networking standards.
Wireless networking has been around for a while now. Although technically the 802.11 standard we base our wireless on has been around since the late 1990s it wasn’t until the early 2000s when 802.11b emerged that it became popular enough for the general public to become aware of it. At the time, the 11Mbps transfer rate of 802.11b was plenty fast enough. We did very few videos, almost no one had an internet connection that could actually get anywhere near 11Mbps, and there just were not that many wireless devices.
In late 2003 devices with the new 802.11g standard running up to 54Mbps started becoming available and were quickly replacing the 802.11b units. The good news is that the new 802.11g units were backwards compatible with the older 802.11b so they could run together using one wireless router or access point. The bad news was that connecting a b device to a g router had the effect of substantially reducing everyone’s throughput on the wireless network.
For many years, up until 2009, 802.11g remained the king. Finally we got a speed boost with 802.11n which moved our maximum speeds up to 600Mbps. Much of this was gained by using both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequency spectrum instead of the previous versions use of only the 2.4Ghz band. It also included some MIMO support (Multi Input – Multi Output) allowing each client to transmit and receive on multiple channels simultaneously.. Unfortunately virtually no one actually saw speeds approaching those numbers and the standard was so long in being released that devices were coming out almost weekly with updated “N compatible” hardware. These devices had a very hard time working with each other.
Most networking technicians will tell you that although the possibilities of 802.11n were amazing at the time, the problems with it made it one of the worst wireless specifications ever.
In early 2014 the 802.11ac standard started to gain traction and replace 802.11n. This new standard promised up to 1200Mbps throughput and although few rarely achieve that, it is still substantially faster than 802.11n and is far easier to implement. AC also implemented Multi User MIMO (MU-MIMO).
By now however, wireless devices were everywhere so congestion was getting really bad. This happened at the same time that a lot of data and services were moving to online frameworks such as with cloud storage and software as a service. Even with the massive increase in speed of the new 802.11ac bottlenecks were still showing up.
Now we are looking forward to the new 802.11ax protocol due to be released around 2019. It is possible however, that we can see these devices popping up much sooner as the major manufacturers of the chips that will support this protocol, Qualcomm and Quantenna, are supposed to be testing these new chips in the “first part of 2017” which of course is right now. If things go well, it is possible we could see early draft 1.0 versions of these devices appear in very late 2017 or early to mid 2018. I would not however expect general public adoption of the actual non-draft version of the standard until at least mid to late 2018.
So what makes 802.11ax so important? Of course there is a huge speed increase, from a maximum of 1200Mbps to a theoretical 10Gbps. I say theoretical since different places are posting different maximum speeds, and of course there are no reports of the actual hardware being tested since if the hardware currently exists, it is in secret labs somewhere.
Moving to a platform that can handle 10Gbps is a huge boost. Finally we can have a wireless network that can compete with a wired network. Since most wired networks today are 1Gbps networks, expecting at least that speed from a wireless network which can provide up to ten times that speed should not be too much to hope for.
This would finally make it practical to run applications like Quickbooks over a wireless network which we have typically shied away from. It would also help the performance of software, platform, and infrastructure as a service as well as cloud based storage.
The only place where wired will really beat wireless, at least in theory, is in latency. What is latency?
Radio waves travel slower than electricity through a wire. Even if you can transmit more data per second using radio waves, it will take longer for that data to reach another computer than it would if it were wired.
Think of it like packages being delivered through UPS. If you have two boxes to send and send one of them next day air and the other one second day air, the next day air package will arrive first regardless of which box has more stuff in it. This is latency.
Fortunately latency only is really a problem with time sensitive matters like online gaming or industrial monitoring. Most of us can deal with it taking 100ms instead of 10ms to start opening a Word document.
The biggest difference with 802.11ax and all previous versions is spectrum efficiency. But what is spectrum efficiency?
Wireless signals travel through the air at a certain frequency. All the devices in the area on that network share the same set of frequencies. You can only have so many devices communicating on those frequencies at the same time. Think of a hundred people in a room all trying to talk at once, it gets harder and harder to hear the person next to you, much less someone across the room.
The more efficient use of those frequencies you can manage, the more devices you can have communicating at higher speeds. Basically this means that 802.11ax can transmit more data on a given set of frequencies in a given amount of time than other wireless protocols, a lot more.
This is incredibly important as more and more people have wireless devices on them all day every day. These devices are also consuming more and more data doing things like streaming music, TV, and movies. The engineers behind 802.11ax spent a massive amount of their time on making the protocol extremely spectral efficient and this will be the biggest boost in its performance.
While I certainly will not be holding my breath for 802.11ax products, I will attempt to hold off on any large scale wireless installations until I get some more information and a more form timeline.