Demystifying 802.11x: An Explanation of Wi-Fi Standards and Speeds

Ever-improving Wi-Fi standards make for denser, faster Wi-Fi networks.

The big news in wireless is the expected ratification of Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) by the IEEE standards body early this year. Some vendors are already shipping pre-standard Wi-Fi 7 gear, and the Wi-Fi Alliance announced in January that it has begun certifying Wi-Fi 7 products.

While the adoption of Wi-Fi 7 is expected to have the most impact on the wireless market, the IEEE has been busy working on other wireless standards as well. In 2023 alone, the group published 802.11bb, a standard for communication via light waves; 802.11az, which significantly improves location accuracy; and 802.11bd for vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication.

Looking ahead, IEEE working groups are tackling new technology areas, such as enhanced data privacy (802.11bi), WLAN sensing (802.11bf), and randomized and changing MAC addresses (802.11bh).

The IEEE has set up special-interest groups to explore harnessing ambient energy, such as heat, from the environment to power IoT devices. A study group is examining standards for high-throughput and low-latency applications like augmented reality and virtual reality. Another group is crafting new algorithms to bolster AI/ML applications.

Here’s an overview of Wi-Fi standards organized into four categories: widely-implemented core standards, recently ratified standards making their way to mainstream use, niche standards, and future standards under development.

Originating from 2013, the Wi-Fi 5 operates on the 5 GHz frequency band and deploys multiple input multiple output (MIMO) technology. This results in accelerated data transmission and enhanced coverage. Wi-Fi 5 theoretically transmits data at a maximum rate of 3.5 Gbps, but speeds exceeding 1 Gbps are more feasible. Wi-Fi 5 devices are still abundantly used, mostly in domestic environments and home office setups.

The Wi-Fi 6 standard, introduced in 2021, is designed for dense settings such as sports stadiums, airports, offices, etc. Wi-Fi 6 operates on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies and through enhanced spectrum utilization, offer four times the throughput of Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 introduces multi-user mechanisms dividing the 9.6Gbps data rate among several devices. It supports routers to transmit data to numerous devices in one communications frame while also facilitating Wi-Fi devices to plan transmissions to the router. These features, together, enhance cumulative throughput and promote Wi-Fi use in data-intensive situations like video and cloud access. It’s also suitable for applications requiring real-time performance and low-power consumption in battery-operated devices.

Enhanced Wi-Fi 6 might seem like a straightforward extension of Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a significant technology progression. Wi-Fi 6E is the first standard to use the 6GHz frequency band, recently approved by the FCC. It quadruples the amount of airwaves with 14 extra 80MHz channels and 7 more MHz channels. Wi-Fi 6E’s maximum theoretical speed matches that of Wi-Fi 6 (9.6Gbps), but provides higher practical speeds and better coverage. It supports online gaming, HD video, telepresence, and unified communication, but demands new hardware.

Wi-Fi 7, or Extremely High Throughput, is the initial standard designed to operate on the 6GHz frequency from the start. For countries that haven’t authorized the 6GHz band for Wi-Fi use, it also uses 2.4 and 5GHz bands. Wi-Fi 7 introduces 320 ultra-wide channels; MLO (multi-link operation) permits devices to send and receive data simultaneously, increasing throughput and decreasing latency. Also, 4K QAM enhances the transmission rate by 20% compared to 1024 QAM. Wi-Fi 7 is nearly five times quicker than Wi-Fi 6, with a maximum theoretical speed of 46Gbps and an approximate real-world speed of 6Gbps. Applications include multi-user AR/VR, realistic-3D training, gaming, hybrid working, industrial IoT, and automotive usage.

In terms of IDC’s global Wi-Fi technology projection, Wi-Fi 7 will swiftly be adopted across a wide ecosystem with over 233 million devices predicted to enter the market in 2024, growing to 2.1 billion by 2028. Smartphones, PCs, tablets, and access points will be the quickest to adopt Wi-Fi 7. CPE and AR/VR equipment are also projected to achieve early market success, states IDC.

The official Wi-Fi 7 devices certification program by the Wi-Fi Alliance is a crucial milestone for prospective enterprise users. The announcement in January 2024 of the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 7 program denotes that the Wi-Fi Alliance’s extensive standardization process for each Wi-Fi generation has achieved relative stability. This certification testing opening signifies that OEMs can finally submit their products for Wi-Fi 7 compliance verification.

The publication of the Global Light Communication Standard in November 2023 signals a significant milestone in the evolution of LiFi technology, a technology that utilizes light in place of radio frequencies for data transmission. By leveraging the light spectrum, LiFi can deliver faster, more dependable wireless communications that provide superior security in comparison to Wi-Fi and 5G. The IEEE 802.11bb standard outlines the physical layer specifications for LiFi, laying the foundation for LiFi systems to be interoperable with Wi-Fi.

The growing use of augmented reality, personal tracking, social networking, health monitoring, inventory management, and other applications have driven the need for more precise indoor localization for Wi-Fi based systems. The latest IEEE 802.11az standard enhances location accuracy from the existing 1–2 meters to just centimeters.

This new standard opens up possibilities such as sqcrenavigating customers more accurately in a store, improving asset tracking in warehouses and enhancing security methods like authorizing computer activation via a smartwatch or a keyless car entry that demands close proximity to the car. This technology can also support secure point-of-sale transactions and assist mobile devices to connect seamlessly to the right access point in your home mesh network as you move around.

Another interesting concept related with the realm of smart vehicles is the formation of ad-hoc vehicular networks by nearby cars to exchange safety and traffic management information. The 802.11bd standard, launched in March 2023, provides superior next-generation V2X communication. It supersedes the 802.11p standard offering double the throughput, extended range, improved positioning support, and backward compatibility with 802.11p devices.

802.11ah delineates how unlicensed networks operate in frequency bands less than 1GHz, typically within the 900 MHz band, but not including TV White Space bands. This covers 908-928MHz in the United States, but other countries may have varying frequencies. The intention of 802.11ah is to facilitate the creation of extended-range Wi-Fi networks that surpass the typical range of networks operating within the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. It’s important to note that a lower frequency is indicative of a longer range. Data speeds can reach up to 347Mbps with this technology.

Besides, the said standard is designed to be more energy efficient. This is particularly beneficial for IoT devices that need to communicate across long ranges without consuming excessive energy. This feature could potentially enable 802.11ah to rival Bluetooth technologies in a domestic setup due to its lower energy requirements.

802.11ad is particularly noteworthy for its speed, capable of delivering up to 6.7Gbps of data rate within the 60 GHz frequency. However, this comes with the trade-off of distance, since such speed can only be achieved if the client device lies within a distance of 3.3 meters – equivalent to roughly 11 feet – from the access point.

Lastly, this standard grants a maximum throughput of at least 20 Gbps within the 60GHz frequency. In contrast, 802.11ad can only deliver up to 7 Gbps at present. The recent standard, also provides improvements in range and reliability. Note that this standard was published in July 2021.

The standard under discussion considers the possibility of a WLAN having the capability to detect wireless signals, which in turn would help in discerning characteristics like range, speed, angle, motion, presence or nearness, or even gestures of a specific target in a certain setting. This target can be a human or an animal, and the setting might be an office, a house, a vehicle, or a room. Anticipated final approval should be towards the end of 2024 or at the start of 2025.

The 802.11aq standard codified MAC privacy for 802.11 stations. This privacy includes altering their MAC address or resorting to a randomized MAC address. But, such steps can have far-reaching repercussions that not only affect 802.11 networks but also a range of affiliated services. A working group was set in motion to come up with an amendment to minimize these impacts but without compromising the user privacy benefits provided by randomized and/or changing MAC addresses. Final approval is anticipated around 2024.

This standard’s objective is to detail modifications to the 802.11 media access control (MAC) specification to invent new mechanisms that focus on and enhance user privacy. There is widespread worry among users and governments about safeguarding personal data like location, movements, contacts, and activities. The final approval is likely to be around the end of 2024 or the start of 2025.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that work is already underway on Wi-Fi 8, known as Ultra-High Reliability, even though Wi-Fi 7 is yet to receive official ratification.

Wi-Fi 8 is prioritizing dependability by emphasizing service availability and delay assurances. Specifically, the Wi-Fi 8 study group is examining seamless connectivity through distributed multi-link operation (MLO), plentiful spectrum through integrated millimeter wave operations, determinism through PHY and MAC improvements, and limited worst-case delay through AP coordination.

The project completion for Wi-Fi 8 standard (802.11bn) is scheduled to be in 2028.

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