The much-cited refrigerator that automatically orders food has not caught on, but many other smart home devices have, such as washing machines that inform their owners via smartphone that the laundry is done. This is made possible by Wi-Fi, one of the best-known and most widespread wireless technologies. More and more devices offer a Wi-Fi interface, and not just in the smart home sector. Wi-Fi is also increasingly finding its way into industrial environments through applications such as mobile robots, crane systems, automated guided vehicles, or even safety and security systems and the networking of sensors in production lines. Virtual reality and gaming applications as well as wallboxes also use this wireless technology.
The new application areas also place new requirements on the technology; and despite the increasing number of subscribers in the Wi-Fi network, users expect a stable network connection. That is why the Wi-Fi Alliance is constantly further developing the standards. Since the first IEEE 802.11 protocol appeared back in 1997, data throughput has improved significantly with each new Wi-Fi standard.
This time, however, the Wi-Fi Alliance has not only optimized the technology, but also the naming: Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E (E = enhanced/extended) replace the cumbersome title IEEE 802.11ax. The predecessor standards have also been given new names: IEEE 802.11ac is now called Wi-Fi 5 and IEEE 802.11n is now Wi-Fi 4.
Technically speaking, Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E offer a whole range of enhancements:
- OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access): OFDMA is an extension of the OFDM method used in Wi-Fi 5 technology. While only one data packet can be transmitted to a single terminal within a given time window when using OFDM, OFDMA enables the transmission of multiple sets of data for various terminals in the same data packet. This increases data rate efficiency and reduces network latency significantly.
- 1024-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation): Compared to Wi-Fi 5, which uses the 256-QAM modulation method, 1024-QAM allows a 25% higher data throughput with Wi-Fi 6. With 1024-QAM, a total of 10 bits can be transmitted; with 256-QAM, it is only 8 bits. This is particularly advantageous in environments characterized by a high density of WLAN terminals, for example in railroad stations or at large events.
- MU-MIMO (multi-user - multiple input, multiple output): By breaking up the available bandwidth into separate spatial streams, communication via multiple antennas between an access point and multiple devices is possible simultaneously, both downlink and uplink. With Wi-Fi 5, this only worked for downlink. As a result, Wi-Fi 6 further reduces network latency and provides greater stability.
- TWT (target wake time): TWT “wakes up” network subscribers to transmit data only at specific times. The rest of the time, the devices “sleep” and thus require less energy. This also avoids interference in the network communication, since sleeping subscribers do not transmit data and do not block the communication streams – a decisive plus point, especially in industrial automation with many sensor applications.
- BSS (basic service set) coloring: Each BSS, consisting of an access point and the clients, is assigned a “color” (i.e. a number) as soon as another BSS is in its vicinity. Signals from another network can therefore be detected and ignored. This allows more efficient use of the streams and better transmission quality.
- Security standard WPA3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 3): Compared to its predecessor standard WPA2, WPA3 provides significant enhancements in the area of authentication and encryption, as well as in the configuration of WLAN devices. Moreover, it ensures greater security at public hotspots. The WPA3 standard is mandatory for Wi-Fi 6 certified products.
Wi-Fi 6E offers even more advantages
Wi-Fi 6E offers more than just the aforesaid advantages: extension to the 6 GHz band, for instance.
Wi-Fi 6E is also based on the IEEE 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard, thus supporting all the technologies mentioned, just like Wi-Fi 6. However, only the now heavily congested original 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands are defined for Wi-Fi 6. In contrast, the 6 GHz band is also available with Wi-Fi 6E. Further 80 MHz and up to seven additional 160 MHz spatial streams for data transmission allow even higher data throughput with wider spatial streams. The 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which devices with older Wi-Fi standards use for transmission, are relieved, which in turn leads to lower latency. This makes Wi-Fi 6E an ideal solution for gaming, streaming, and virtual reality applications.
However, Wi-Fi use of the 6 GHz band has not yet been opened up in some countries. The USA started in 2020; Figure 1 shows which other countries have since followed its lead.
Switching over requires new hardware
Anyone who is now considering switching to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E should keep in mind that devices with older Wi-Fi standards cannot simply be upgraded to Wi-Fi 6/6E through a software update. This means that all routers and devices that need to use the latest standard must be equipped with new hardware. Wi-Fi 6/6E devices, on the other hand, are backwards compatible with older Wi-Fi standards.
Rutronik already has products from various suppliers in its portfolio for both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E:
Intel offers combination cards for Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth with its AX200 and AX201 models in form factors M.2 2230 and M.2 1216. Wi-Fi 6E cards are also already available with the two M.2 cards AX210 and AX211 from Intel. All Intel plug-in cards can be obtained in a range of variants, both with and without vPRO. AX210 is additionally offered for the industrial temperature range. Development kits are also available.
Silex offers a Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2 BR/EDR/LE card. SX-PCEAX is based on Qualcomm’s QCA2066 SoC and is available in various form factors (SMT, half-size PCIe, M.2). The module is also certified for the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E.
Advantech has several Wi-Fi 6 plug-in cards in its product range: AIW-163 is an M.2 2230 card with an A-E Key (the key describes the connection form of the M.2 header) and a temperature range of 0 °C to 70 °C. AIW-165 in form factor M.2 2830 has an E Key and a temperature range of –40 °C to +85 °C. Advantech has announced two more M.2 2230 E Key cards for late 2022. Kits are also available from Advantech.
Module supplier Murata relies on chip sets from Infineon/Cypress and NXP for its Wi-Fi 6 and 6E products. Type 1XL is an NXP-based Wi-Fi 6 and BLE 5.2 2x2 MIMO module in a small form factor of 19.1 mm × 16.5 mm. More modules will be launched from the beginning of 2023: Type 2EA is based on the Cypress CYW55573 and will support Wi-Fi 6E. Type 2DL/2DR and 2EL/2ER are based on different NXP chips. The 2Ex variants also support Thread in addition to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 6. The 2xR modules feature an extra antenna for Bluetooth.
Panasonic will also launch its first Wi-Fi 6 modules in 2023.
Rutronik offers complete routers with the new Wi-Fi 6/6E standard from Asus; and Silex also plans to add Wi-Fi 6E to its wireless bridges, device servers, and wireless presentation systems.
Products are, therefore, available and numerous device suppliers are already applying them. According to information from the Wi-Fi Alliance, 2.3 billion and 350 million of the total 29 billion Wi-Fi devices shipped in 2022 will be equipped with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E respectively (Fig. 2). Thanks to their advantages, the overall share of the new standards will certainly increase significantly.
While Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are establishing themselves on the market, the Wi-Fi Alliance is already working on the next standard: Wi-Fi 7 or IEEE 802.11be. Users can look forward to three bands (2.4, 5, and 6 GHz) and even higher data transfer speeds. However, the Wi-Fi Alliance will not finalize this standard until mid-2024. So, it will be quite some time before hardware with Wi-Fi 7 is available on the market.
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