How to bring light to the Wi-Fi standard’s jungle

The newer, the better? 

Technology in the network industry has evolved significantly over the last two decades. Thanks to ever-newer standards and transmission technologies, we now have stable broadband connections that deliver gigabit speeds. Fiber optics or Super Vectoring are just two examples of the latest developments.

In parallel to the increased speeds in cabled connections, a new Wi-Fi standard was added every few years Starting with 11b/a combined in 11g, moving on to n and then to the current 802.11ac Wave 2, and even the “pre-standard” 802.11ax—the last two offering wireless speeds that match LAN speeds.

This amazing progress is thanks to all those who are doing important groundwork on ever newer, more efficient or simply more secure standards. More specifically experts at universities, all those who are working in the IEEE working groups and lastly those working in Wi-Fi task forces around the globe. This is exactly what drives manufacturers and the Wi-Fi Alliance to provide bandwidth-hungry customers with more powerful products at sometimes-breathtaking speed. Yet, from a user’s point of view, it does not always make sense to automatically follow the latest trend.

(Note: In October, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced their plans to simplify the nomenclature of their Wi-Fi standards, moving to a generational approach. 802.11ax will be called “Wi-Fi 6”, 802.11ac is now “Wi-Fi 5”, and 802.11n becomes “Wi-Fi 4”. This makes it easier for users to know which standards their devices support, and which standard any particular Wi-Fi actually offers.

“Simply more speed” is history

It used to be simple: in the past, a new Wi-Fi standard usually brought more speed to the data highways. Today, the world is more complex. Technologies emerge that bring progress, but sometimes in certain areas only. The old credo of “higher, further, faster” today applies to Wi-Fi standards only to a limited extent.

Companies, therefore, should take a closer look to find out which technology offers the desired benefit at all. So the question is no longer, “Which is the latest, fastest Wi-Fi standard on the market?”, but rather which of the current or future standards best meets their needs.

Example: 802.11s mesh

Take mesh Wi-Fi, for example. Mesh is being strongly hyped right now. The idea behind mesh is that wireless networks with multiple access points configure themselves automatically. One of the access points acts as a master and is usually connected to the Internet via DSL or other broadband connections. Further access points are wirelessly connected to this master. This creates a mesh of access points that communicate with one another completely “over the air”.

However, mesh reaches its technical limits with around six networked access points. This means the technology is of limited use for application scenarios within a company, and it is only of interest for very clearly described scenarios.

mesh Wi-Fi network

The technical reason for this restriction is that a part of the radio spectrum used to transmit data in the mesh Wi-Fi is required for the devices to communicate between themselves. Depending on the number of radio modules installed, the payload bandwidth per mesh wireless link from access point to access point can be cut by half. This can make the Wi-Fi practically unusable.

Mesh is therefore a technology more for home users without deep technical knowledge who want to build networks with a small number of devices. Networks that, to a certain extent, connect themselves. But there are also business applications where mesh is entirely conceivable. Take, for example, small, temporary pop-up stores that sprout up like mushrooms, which of course need to be ultra-modern and networked—but which disappear again just as quickly. Or in parts of buildings where laying network cables is extremely difficult or even impossible.

But apart from the limited bandwidths, there is another significant disadvantage for businesses from today’s perspective: Although the IEEE 802.11s standard specifies that mesh is on layer 2 of the 7-layer OSI model, the proprietary mesh networking from most vendors is found on higher layers. Consequently, access points from different manufacturers are currently unable to establish a mesh network between themselves. A remedy to this is the “Multi-AP” certification, which the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on right now.

Example: 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6)

“The next big thing” in Wi-Fi is the brand new standard 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), which has been in development since 2013. The final adoption of the standard by the High Efficiency WLAN Study Group is planned for sometime end of 2019. So the first truly standard-compliant devices are expected to come onto the market at the earliest by mid to late next year. Products being marketed as “ax products” today are pre-standard devices, which for business customers pose a risk of future incompatibility.

But what exactly makes the new sixth-generation Wi-Fi so exciting? And how come it is not suitable for everybody? As so often, the answer lies in the details.

IEEE 802.11ax: Higher Efficiency in High-Density Environments

The new Wi-Fi 6 brings little in the way of higher speed, but plays out its advantages primarily in high-density environments where very large numbers of Wi-Fi clients and IP devices (IoT) need to be served simultaneously. Typical examples include football stadiums or large events.

The advantage of 11ax over other Wi-Fi standards is the increase of average throughput per Wi-Fi client, especially in high-density environments: The available bandwidths are allocated more efficiently to the individual clients. Transmission is more stable and individual connections have a stronger signal. A special role here is played by the parallel transmissions via multi-user MIMO—now for the uplink, too—and the introduction of OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) (also see:

To cut a long story short: Wi-Fi 6 is less about improved absolute speed and more about the effective transmission of data to multiple clients. If you simply want more bandwidth for your company, you should take a closer look at the speeds offered by the current Wi-Fi 5.

Example: 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)

802.11ac is the industry’s latest high-speed Wi-Fi standard and has been on the market since 2013. Most of the newer smartphones support the fast 11ac standard. According to the current 2018 IDC Market Tracker for Worldwide Enterprise WLAN, the second quarter of 2018 saw almost half of all consumer shipments and over 70% of sales worldwide attributable to 11ac devices. The potential of 11ac is therefore not yet completely exhausted. In the business customer segment, 11ac is only now gradually reaching full market penetration with an 85.2% share of worldwide deliveries.

However, the comprehensive features and potential increases in the efficiency of data transmissions to Wi-Fi clients are far from exhausted.

Following the performance improvements previously brought by the original release, the subsequent arrival of Wave 2 MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input and multiple output) provided yet more improvements in the utilization of available bandwidths.

Multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO for short) operates exclusively in the 5-GHz band and allows the spatial streams of an access point to be divided between different (mobile) clients. This supplies several devices with data at the same time and all of the available streams are used to maximum effect. The result is an increase in the overall bandwidth, and this is used to transfer data in parallel.

Along with MU-MIMO, the second wave of 11ac brings two additional enhancements that also increase the bandwidth: 4×4 MIMO and support for channel widths up to 160 MHz.

The full potential of a 4×4 MIMO access point really comes into play in combination with MU-MIMO: The maximum available data rate of 1733 Mbps can be divided between multiple clients to exploit the radio field to the fullest.

The usability of channel widths of up to 160 MHz in the 5-GHz band theoretically doubles the performance compared to 802.11ac Wave 1 and its maximum channel width of 80 MHz. However, the number of available channels is reduced due to operating link aggregation. For more features and enhancements that come with 11ac Wave 2, see our white paper:

Overall, the latest standard 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) Wave 2 offers significant performance and efficiency improvements for wireless networks. Right now, it is the Wi-Fi standard for businesses and users looking for the quickest possible wireless data transmission speeds.

What you can expect from LANCOM

When it comes to deciding which Wi-Fi standard is the best or most suitable for your applications, it is well worth taking a closer look on a case-by-case basis.

At LANCOM, we therefore pursue a strategy of simultaneity. On the one hand, we are going with the current Wi-Fi 5 standard, which not only brings great bandwidths but is also ideal for the increasing number of real-time network applications, including telephony and video.

On the other hand, we see enterprise mesh (802.11s) networks primarily for scenarios where the availability of Ethernet cables is difficult or for applications where they operate as a backup solution for faulty wired non-PoE infrastructures. We are planning the first market-ready software solution for the first half of 2019.

We take each (new) standard seriously and look very closely at its features and enhancements, long before they hit the market. When it comes to Wi-Fi 6 (11ax) and mesh (11s), we have of course been busy ever since their announcement. However, we decide on a case-by-case basis which technological innovations we consider to make sense for our product range. Businesses looking for the right solution should do the same.

PS: By the way, we are not only looking at new Wi-Fi standards but also at the latest security standards. Therefore, we have been the first to implement WPA3 standard into our latest firmware and thus into our complete WLAN portfolio, bringing even legacy infrastructures to the highest available security level.


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