The Wi-FI 6 standard (802.11ax) is bringing many exciting improvements to Wi-Fi that make it an enticing option. These include speed, in the form of real-world multi-gigabit wireless connections, but also support for high-density networks like those in stadiums. However, it will take some careful thought and planning to know when to take the leap to Wi-Fi 6.
Do you need the speed?
To make multi-gigabit wireless speeds possible, most Wi-Fi 6 access points (AP) ship with a 2.5Gbps or 5Gbps LAN connection, whereas nearly all Wi-Fi 5 APs have a 1Gbps interface. Connecting a Wi-Fi 6 AP to a typical gigabit network is possible but will bottleneck the speeds of the Wi-Fi so clients won’t be able to realize connection speeds over 1Gbps to the internal LAN or internet.
On the other hand, you might not need such fast Wi-Fi-access speeds. For casual Wi-Fi usage by smartphones and laptops in an office you probably don’t. But it would help on networks with a high-density of users or those with sensitive or high-throughput applications like streaming 4K videos – especially if the content is coming from within the LAN instead of the Internet.
Is your wired network ready?
Evaluate your current network to see what needs upgrading on the wired side in order to get the multi-gigabit support. Here’s what to look for:
- Switches: Check the maximum data rate supported by any switches located between the APs and the router. If the Wi-Fi clients will be accessing network shares on the LAN, follow the path that the traffic will travel, and evaluate those switches as well.
- Power-over-Ethernet: If using PoE via the switch or external injectors to power the APs, check which PoE standard and data rates they support. Keep in mind that most Wi-Fi 6 APs will require compliance with at least the PoE+ standard (802.3at). Though some APs will support the legacy PoE standard (802.3af), it will usually reduce the performance of the AP and most likely only support a maximum data rate of 1Gbps. For future-proofing your PoE, consider the newer PoE++ standard (802.3bt) if it’s available on a switch or injector.
- Cabling: To get better than 1Gbps on the wired side, you need to have at least Cat6 cabling out to the APs and any connections between them and the router. For future-proofing, consider Cat6a, Cat7, Cat7a, or, if it’s available and plausible, Cat8. If you have the legacy Cat5e or older cabling, keep in mind you might not have to re-cable every Ethernet outlet. Think about what the Wi-Fi clients will be accessing on the LAN and the path their traffic will take.
- Router: For smaller networks with switch ports being used on the router you might want to consider upgrading if they only support 1Gbps.
When looking at multi-gigabit support for switches, PoE, and routers you’ll see options for the maximum data supported: 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, and 10 Gbps. For Wi-Fi 6 you’ll likely only need 2.5Gbps or 5 Gbps. But for future-proofing both the wired and wireless sides, consider 10 Gbps. For the cabling, Cat6a, Cat7, and Cat7a all support the same max data rate of 10 Gbps, but each has higher bandwidth than the previous one.
Where should you place APs?
With any Wi-Fi deployment you should always do a site survey before deploying APs. We already discussed most of what you want to look for in a LAN survey. A wireless or RF survey can help you locate the best spots to mount APs in order to get the best coverage, roaming, and performance. The range and coverage of Wi-Fi 6 may be similar to that provided by the older standards but there are differences in regard to density that can affect the placement and configuration settings.
If you haven’t done a lot of Wi-Fi work, find someone who has. Guessing at where to place the APs, especially for bigger networks, can be a costly mistake. There are methods and tools to help better design Wi-Fi networks, including analyzers and heatmapping software. A professional survey can save time, money, and headache.
Can you obtain the Wi-Fi 6 clients you need?
Although the Wi-Fi 6 APs are backward compatible with the older Wi-Fi client standards (802.11a/b/g/n/ac), you won’t be able to realize all the Wi-Fi 6 speed improvements unless using a Wi-Fi 6 client. At the time of this writing, there aren’t many client devices supporting Wi-Fi 6. You’ll find the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Apple iPhone 11 phones do, along with some newer laptops and desktops.
For most networks, it makes sense to wait until the client devices are upgraded to Wi-Fi 6. But if you have a special network or select devices that need extremely high throughput you might consider upgrading sooner. For desktop computers, there are PCIe adapter cards available. We couldn’t find any USB adapters on the market yet. To upgrade laptops right now, you’d likely need to purchase a M.2/NGFF Wi-Fi 6 adapter, if the laptop has a compatible slot for Wi-Fi cards.
To see what’s currently out there supporting Wi-Fi 6, check out the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Product Finder.
Are the features you want available yet?
Like we saw with 802.11ac, we’ll see 802.11ax come out in phases. We’ll first see devices only sending/receiving up to 4 simultaneous spatial streams, and up to 8 later. Right now, we only have multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) on the AP-to-client downlink, while later they’ll add clients-to-AP uplink support as well. However, right away we’ll see the new orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) feature working in both directions, allowing multiple clients that have different bandwidth requirements to connect to the same AP at the same time.
Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer who posts on Facebook and Twitter. He’s founder of NoWiresSecurity providing a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and Wi-Fi Surveyors, providing RF site surveying.