The new version of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, will accelerate data rates and is designed to support a wide range of uses. With the IEEE almost set to ratify 11ax, manufacturers are announcing access points with a variety of form factors.
Just as cellular networking is on the cusp of gigabit broadband with 5G, so too is wireless local area networking (WLAN) with IEEE 802.11ax.
The standard for this latest iteration of Wi-Fi, sometimes referred as Wi-Fi Max, is still not finalized, though it is close. It makes use of many of the same technologies and techniques adopted by 5G to improve spectral efficiency, including MIMO (massive input, massive output – essentially the use of multiple antennas), OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access), and higher order modulation (1024 QAM).
Relying on these technologies, 11ax has achieved throughputs in excess of 10 Gbps in controlled demonstrations. In practice, data rates will be lower but users will still have access to streams of multiple gigabits per second. The range of 11ax routers should also be far superior to those based on preceding versions of Wi-Fi.
By the way, engineers are already working on the next steps with 11ax. It currently operates at 2.4 MHz and at 5 MHz; one new capability would be using yet another slice of unlicensed spectrum in the 6 MHz band (see Wi-Fi Preps Leap to 6 GHz).
In the past, every new generation of Wi-Fi has come with an acceleration of data rates, supporting new applications. These new applications tended to be consumer-oriented, such as web browsing or viewing streaming video. This latest version of Wi-Fi was created with the IoT in mind, and to that end, it supports low-power operation, lower latencies, and other performance requirements associated with machine-to-machine communications in a wide variety of applications. The ability to support performance parameters that might vary greatly from one application to the next depending on specific needs is another similarity with 5G.
While 11ax can certainly support residential IoT applications such as home automation, as with 5G, many of the first access points announced are built not for residential routing but for enterprise/industrial markets. And just as the first batch of 5G access points are beginning to dribble out, so too are the first 11ax APs.
Celano, Intel (Lantiq), Marvell, and Quantenna are among the other companies providing 11ax chips and chipsets. The most recently announced is a wireless system-on-a-chip (SoC) from Marvell that the company says is the first in a 2×2 plus 2×2 configuration. The dual concurrent Wi-Fi operation is designed for connected vehicles; having two antennas instead of one is expected to provide better signal penetration and stronger coverage, the company notes.
Prior to 11ax, APs were already being built in different form factors for different applications. APs based on 11ax can connect even more clients, with more diverse usage profiles, and specify quality of service (QoS) for each, which makes 11ax interesting for use in larger enterprises and in public places.
The R730 just announced by Ruckus is a case in point. The company has been making APs in various configurations, including a wall-mounted version for hotel rooms and another designed to be integrated into hotspot kiosks (for LinkNYC kiosks in New York City).
Ruckus claims the R730 is the first of its kind, though its kind is narrowly defined. It will be the first AP that combines 11ax and LTE in a single product. The company said it designed the R730 for public venues, including stadiums, train stations, and schools. Dennis Huang, Ruckus’ director of enterprise wireless products, referred to it as Ruckus’ new flagship product.
The company is calling the R730 “IoT-ready.” That’s a reference to the inclusion of “radios inside that are literally waiting to be turned on that support BLE and Zigbee. These access points are becoming uber access points, or super access points, that support not just Wi-Fi but standards beyond Wi-Fi,” said Huang. The company can add modules for other communications standards (e.g. LoRa).
The increased throughputs of 11ax are exciting, of course, Huang said, “but what really interests us, are these lesser-known enhancements to the standard, for example the power efficiencies for battery-powered devices … That will allow us to take our standard Wi-Fi access point and augment it with capabilities to onboard IoT devices, such as Zigbee door locks or BLE sensors and tags.”
As for LTE connectivity, the R730 accommodates modular OpenG LTE APs operating in the U.S. Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band, enabling existing Wi-Fi APs to provide LTE service, the company said, adding that, “Using modular or stand-alone LTE APs, organizations will be able to build their own private LTE networks to improve the quality of indoor cellular service within their facilities.”
It will eventually be useful to have a single AP that can automatically interconnect devices using a babel of communications technologies, but the industry just isn’t there yet. Huang said, “We might need another iteration of ax to do that.”
Management of Wi-Fi connectivity alone is challenging in public environments. Systems can get spikes of traffic that tend to be overwhelming. Examples include transit stations where the Wi-Fi system needs to quickly deal with thousands of passengers disembarking from a train, or a stadium where thousands of fans all try to download an instant replay of a spectacular play. There are other management issues. For this part of the challenge, Ruckus touts its Ruckus Ultra-High Density Technology Suite.
Since the 11ax standard is not ratified yet, Ruckus is going to present just a few 11ax-based products in 2018, meaning most of its portfolio will still be based on 802.11ac Wave 2 – the immediately preceding generation of Wi-Fi technology. The company plans on bringing out most of its 11ax products in 2019. The expectation is that Ruckus’ competitors will behave likewise for the same reasons.
Brian Santo has been writing about science and technology for over 30 years, covering cable networks, broadband, wireless, the Internet of things, T&M, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and more.