Understanding the different WiFi technologies

Johannesburg, 09 Mar 2021
Read time 3min 20sec

A little over three years ago, there was no such thing as WiFi 4, 5 or 6, so where did these standards come from, what is the difference and what happened to WiFi 1, 2 and 3?

The answer is actually quite simple. In October 2018, the WiFi Alliance introduced a new naming convention to make the already existing WiFi standards easier to recognise. This meant that 802.11n was renamed to WiFi 4, 802.11ac became WiFi 5 and the much anticipated and talked about 802.11ax got dubbed WiFi 6. All of these still forming part of the IEEE set of wireless standards. No WiFi 1, 2 or 3 names were given but if we look at older standards, these could have been classified as 802.11b, 802.11a and 802.11g, respectively.

WiFi 4 (802.11n) was announced by the WiFi Alliance in 2009 and introduced Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MIMO) technology, which allows multiple simultaneous transmissions (typically 2x2), increasing throughput, but only to one device at a time in a single timeslot. The technology allowed for WiFi speeds of up to 600Mbps when utilising a dual band router which could provide connectivity on 2.4GHz as well as 5GHz simultaneously. The standard is still widely used in a residential setup as it is affordable to most households requiring WiFi connectivity.

While this technology was more than adequate for the time, the rapid rate at which technology advances started to place increased pressure on WiFi networks. The average home went from 1 -2 two concurrent connected devices to 10 +, and business could have 100+ concurrent devices connected at any given time using bandwidth.

WiFi 5 (802.11ac) introduced in 2013, addressed this problem by drastically improving the capabilities of WiFi by introducing multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) which allows routers to communicate with up to four devices at a time (4x4 MU-MIMO) in a single timeslot.

This meant that we can now expect throughput speeds of up to 4Gbps, depending on the device, in order to feed much more data-hungry devices demanding connectivity, such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and other smart home products like WiFi connected light bulbs, smart cameras and smart sensors.

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The capabilities of increased throughput and number of concurrent connected devices inherent in the WiFi 5 standard also holds major benefits in the enterprise space where business is now done online and meetings are held via video-conferences.

This brings us to the next generation in the WiFi standard, WiFi 6 (802.11ax). Announced in 2018, this advancement of WiFi technology offers significant improvements over both WiFi 4 and 5. WiFi 6 employs several new features that are designed to boost overall performance and offers increased throughput speeds of 9+Gbps.

In addition to superior speeds, WiFi 6 will further relieve network congestion and provide greater network capacity through the introduction of 8x8 MU-MIMO, allowing for dozens of concurrent connected devices, and something called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA. In Short, OFDMA assigns time intervals to clients which allows up to 30 clients to share a channel at the same time.

A new feature called Target Wake Time (TWT) will greatly improve the battery life of connected devices such as smartphones, laptops and WiFi-enabled devices. The access point or router will tell the connected devices WiFi radio when to sleep and when to wake to receive the next transmission. This opens the door to low-powered IOT sensors to be connected over WiFi.

Wi-Fi 6’s exciting new technologies empower users to embrace all the new opportunities that modern day technology offers.

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