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The 802.11ax Race Is On

Wi-Fi has undoubtedly become a business-critical technology. Companies of all sizes in all verticals need good quality Wi-Fi to connect employees, customers, and Internet of Things devices to the company network. We expect to be able to connect and have a great experience, so when Wi-Fi works, we don't notice. But when it doesn't work, we most certainly do notice, and experience high levels of frustration.

An important business dynamic to consider is that as the world becomes more digital, organizations want to capture data from mobile phones to understand activity and gain new insights. If the Wi-Fi performs poorly, people will shut it off and instead use 4G cellular service -- making collection of mobile data difficult, if not impossible. That's why I say Wi-Fi is business-critical.

Wi-Fi has evolved by huge leaps and bounds over the past decade, but it's still not at the point where it gives us a great experience all the time. This is because most of the innovation has focused on making Wi-Fi incrementally faster. None of the standards, including 802.11ac Wave 2, addressed things like congestion and how to handle overcrowded networks. While Wave 2 networks, capable of getting close to or slightly over 1 gigabit per second, should provide enough bandwidth for most companies, the initial Wi-Fi specs assumed casual usage and those principals have stuck around.

The upcoming 802.11ax standard is the first major overhaul of how Wi-Fi operates. It will reduce congestion, support faster speeds, and improve battery life.

Congestion management

The biggest change with 802.11ax is the use of a LTE technology, orthogonal frequency division multiple access (ODFMA). This is a super technical way of saying 802.11ax uses frequency division multiplexing.

In a Wi-Fi network, each connection between a client device and an access point (AP) is known as a channel. Prior to ax, Wi-Fi standards hold the channel open until the data transmission has ended, regardless of pauses in the stream. This is akin to being stuck in a grocery store line behind somebody fumbling through a pocketful of change looking for the exact amount. No information is passing between the shopper and the checkout clerk, but the line is still at a stall. Multiuser MIMO (MU-MIMO) brings four lines, but clients still need to wait for a clear channel before it can connect.

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