This article appeared in Electronic Design and has been published here with permission.
What You’ll Learn:
- How significant the speed, latency, and device density improvements are in Wi-Fi 6/6E.
- Why the performance advances in new Wi-Fi technology is not only relevant for data-intensive applications, but also for low-data IoT applications where battery life matters.
- Best practices for working with Wi-Fi 6/6E and factoring this technology into your IoT device development strategy,
The Wi-Fi Alliance has launched two new versions of Wi-Fi that deliver significant advances in performance, efficiency, latency, and other key areas: Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. Because Wi-Fi is such a ubiquitous technology in IoT design, there’s always apprehension about changes to this core connectivity technology.
By dispelling the misconceptions, what becomes clear is that these new versions of Wi-Fi provide an even stronger foundation for consumer smart devices, IoT networks, and a wide range of enterprise and industrial use cases.
1. This is a minor update to Wi-Fi. It’s really only significant for niche applications.
It’s not an exaggeration to compare this upgrade to Wi-Fi to the leap from 4G to 5G in the cellular world. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E will deliver major advances in performance and features that make it enormously impactful across the full range of IoT devices.
2. It looks faster. That’s the biggest upgrade.
“Faster” just scratches the surface of why Wi-Fi 6 and 6E are better options. Greater device density and much-increased spectrum gives engineers more flexibility, reliability, and performance, making it the most efficient version of Wi-Fi ever delivered. Don’t forget the major gains in energy efficiency, latency, and features that support both existing and new use cases.
3. The claims I’ve seen about speed feel like hype. It’s silly to compare this to the jump in performance in cellular from 4G to 5G.
I’m always skeptical about speed claims in marketing materials, but the boost in speed is legitimate. I’ve read test results from respected people in the industry who have achieved increases in download speeds of 1,000%. And those results match what my own team has seen working with the technology. Part of how Wi-Fi 6 makes this happen is through its low-power claims, so that the download times and power don’t waste energy.
There’s a long list of data-intensive IoT use cases that benefit greatly from this increase in speed. Factory and building automation is a key one. So are automation systems in industrial settings, as well as use cases where high-quality video and audio are important requirements.
4. MIMO technology is probably the main driver for such an increase in speed. It’s not big news—lots of technologies now have that.
The inclusion of MU-MIMO is a major factor, but just crediting that technology discounts how significant this upgrade is in Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. In addition to doubling the number of spatial streams using MU-MIMO, the performance of those streams is dramatically increased using beamforming techniques. Adding the ability to implement bidirectional MU-MIMO Wi-Fi 6 is the first version of Wi-Fi that allows users to access the full benefit of beamforming in noisy environments. Wider channels that include space in the 6-GHz spectrum also contribute greatly to the boost in speed.
Moreover, Wi-Fi 6/6E’s extension of quadrature-amplitude-modulation (QAM) architecture is a big deal. It’s the equivalent of putting a much more powerful engine into Wi-Fi, making the massive increase in speed possible.
5. I’ll give you that Wi-Fi 6 is faster. But latency is still an issue.
Yes, Wi-Fi isn’t yet a fit for ultra-low-latency applications like medical devices, where latency is so vitally important. But that doesn’t mean that the latency improvement in Wi-Fi 6/6E isn’t significant.
Latency is approximately 3X lower than prior versions of Wi-Fi, so it may not be ready for real-time applications, but it’s very close. Just as valuable is how the new version of Wi-Fi manages packets more efficiently, removing empty space so that network utilization nears 100%. Those two factors make this a major upgrade for latency-sensitive applications such as robotics, lighting controls, machine controls, and more.
6. My IoT devices don’t have a lot of data to transfer, and I don’t need real-time data transmission, so these latency improvements aren’t relevant to me.
Wi-Fi’s lower latency has a surprise benefit for battery-powered IoT devices: longer battery life. The faster speed and lower latency of Wi-Fi 6/6E reduces the amount of time (and energy) it takes for devices to send and receive data. Even when small batches of data are being sent and received, those small energy savings add up over time.
I expect further testing to reveal that these performance upgrades in Wi-Fi will add months or even years to some of the most common low-energy IoT devices.
7. Greater device density will be great for consumer environments, like when all of the kids in a family are streaming on their devices. But it’s not as important for my IoT deployments.
Yes, anything that reduces family fights over connectivity is a very good thing. But every Wi-Fi network experiences congestion, which often creates performance issues that have become frustrating in high-density RF environments like healthcare facilities, airports, and schools.
By using MU-MIMO, beamforming, OFDMA, more efficient packet management, BSS Coloring, and other features allows networks to support far more devices in a given physical space while also reducing the RF noise and interference that often plagued high-density environments in the past. This also can save on the cost of infrastructure deployment, as it requires far fewer access points to support the high client counts.
8. This new version of Wi-Fi is all about speed. Hopefully, they will focus more on battery life in the next version.
No need to wait for a more battery-friendly version of Wi-Fi. This version delivers on it in a big way.
I already mentioned that this is the most efficient Wi-Fi version and discussed the impact of lower latency and packet management on battery life. But Wi-Fi 6 and 6E also have a redesigned architecture that utilizes target-wake-time (TWT) technology to manage sleep and wake cycles in a far more energy-efficient way. In addition, TWT allows you to tailor your power versus performance by application across your network by being on a per device or group level rather than the traditional singular entry access point or network level.
If you like working with prior technologies like PS-Poll (DTIM) and WMM (APSD), don’t worry. Both are still available, but TWT is a major step forward because it enables much longer sleep times for clients that preserve battery through extended inactivity while remaining connected to the network.
9. The marketing about Wi-Fi 6 and 6E talks a lot about 6-GHz spectrum, but that’s only relevant for advanced wireless engineers.
I don’t blame you if all the GHz talk gives you a giga-headache. Discussions of radio frequencies and spectrum bands can get lost in the weeds very quickly but 6-GHz spectrum is big news for every designer of IoT devices.
Wi-Fi 6 and 6E make it simple for engineering teams to have far more wireless real estate for their networks, allowing them to optimize the performance of their devices. Got a low-latency application that you don’t want to compete for bandwidth with other devices? Assign it a segment of spectrum dedicated to that use case and keep other devices in other segments of available Wi-Fi spectrum.
The process doesn’t require an advanced degree in radio-frequency engineering. The new version of Wi-Fi makes it simple to put networks in portions of spectrum that best suit the application and your preferences.
10. These features may sound great, but antennas will no doubt lag behind and stand in the way of real-world deployments.
In this case, antennas are actually ahead of the curve. Antenna manufacturers have anticipated the use of technologies like MU-MIMO and beamforming, and they laid the groundwork for use of the 6-GHz spectrum by Wi-Fi. A wide range of options exist in the form factors that are most common for IoT devices, including flexible planar inverted-F antennas (PIFAs). The bottom line is that antenna availability thankfully will not hold back your deployment plans.
11. This version sounds plug-and-play. I won’t have to alter much in my designs.
Any engineer who has worked with Wi-Fi in the past will feel comfortable working with Wi-Fi 6/6E, but there are some caveats. A few changes to hardware interfaces and logical interfaces have changed from prior versions of Wi-Fi. On the plus side, though, there’s much broader OS support for Linux, Android, and RTOS, as well as full support for the latest Bluetooth versions and features.
Using Wi-Fi 6/6E will mean changes for some detailed aspects of your engineering projects. However, the dramatic improvements in speed, latency, performance, battery efficiency, and more make this well worth the adjustments needed to incorporate this new connectivity technology into your IoT strategy.