The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) develop the 802.11 specifications that define wireless networking. Like any technology, the 802.11 standard is ever-evolving.
For example, many Wi-Fi routers nowadays support 802.11ac, published in 2013. The ac standard, called Gigabit Wi-Fi, has the following properties:
- Maximum speed of 1.3 Gbps
- Operates in the 5-GHz band
- Connect up to four devices simultaneously via Multi User - Multi Input Multi Output (MU-MIMO)
What is 802.11ax
The IEEE is hard at work on the 802.11ax standard and plans to release it publicly in 2019. You can read the specification on the IEEE website. Also, the National Instruments published an excellent 802.11ax white paper that's worth a read.
Perhaps your question at this point is, "Why should I care about 802.11.ax. To answer that question, let's consider the chief benefits that 802.11ax brings to the table.
As we said earlier, MIMO allows a wireless access point to work with up to four separate data streams simultaneously. 802.11ax brings MIMO multiplexing with Orthogonal Frequency Division Access (OFDA) to the table. What that means in a nutshell is that 802.11ax routers can broadcast four MIMO spatial streams, giving you four times the maximum theoretical bandwidth per stream.
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Assuming a single 802.11ax stream of 3.5 Gbps, and multiplying that by four and you'll get a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 14 Gbps. That's fast, but there are always mitigating factors, such as which channel width in the 5-GHz band the wireless access point uses.
Why does anybody need that much network speed? you might ask. Well, consider the idea of performing any of the following actions with nearly zero lag:
- Stream 4K (Ultra HD) video
- Download full retail games to your console
- Mesh your household "smart" appliances with no latency
Given the cost of some higher-end Wi-Fi hardware, it's good news that 802.11ax will be backward-compatible with the existing and in some cases older 802.11a/b/g/n/ac standards.
The Wi-Fi standards moved to the 5-GHz band so as to reduce contention with 2.4-GHz household appliances. 802.11ax does indeed operate in the 5-GHz band. However, the IEEE designed 802.11ax specifically for high resiliency. In fact, the informal title of the 802.11ax specification is "High-Efficiency Wireless" or HEW.
The IEEE is architecting 802.11ax to provide steady, resilient performance even in Wi-Fi dense areas. For example, think of how many Wi-Fi wireless local area networks (WLANs) compete in both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands in a typical high-rise apartment building.
As of this writing, we know very little about the effective indoor and outdoor range supported by 802.11ax. By comparison, 802.11n, the current-generation Wi-Fi standard, has an approximate indoor range of 70 meters, or 230 feet. It's approximate outdoor range is 240 meters, or 820 feet.
If there's a bottleneck to the IEEE 802.11ax release and adoption process, it's (a) certification; and (b) original equipment manufacturer (OEM) support. Intel and Qualcomm have both announced chips will be ready within the year for the new standard. Asus and D-Link have both announced routers that will run on it. But it will be some time before the new standard becomes the standard.
The Wi-Fi Alliance certifies Wi-Fi interfaces and equipment against the published IEEE 802.11 standards. Although the IEEE plans to release the 802.11ax specification in 2019, there is no saying how long the certification process will take.
The Wi-Fi certification process is important; we customers rely upon Wi-Fi Alliance certification to purchase Wi-Fi equipment with confidence, knowing before you reach the point of sale that the new equipment will work with your existing networking environment.