802.11x: Wi-Fi standards and speeds explained


The big news in wireless is the expected ratification of Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) by the IEEE standards body early this year. Some vendors are already shipping pre-standard Wi-Fi 7 gear, and the Wi-Fi Alliance announced in January that it has begun certifying Wi-Fi 7 products.

While the adoption of Wi-Fi 7 is expected to have the most impact on the wireless market, the IEEE has been busy working on other wireless standards as well. In 2023 alone, the group published 802.11bb, a standard for communication via light waves; 802.11az, which significantly improves location accuracy; and 802.11bd for vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication.

Looking ahead, IEEE working groups are tackling new technology areas, such as enhanced data privacy (802.11bi), WLAN sensing (802.11bf), and randomized and changing MAC addresses (802.11bh).

In addition, the IEEE has established special-interest groups to investigate the use of ambient energy harvested from the environment, such as heat, to power IoT devices. There’s a study group looking at standards for high-throughput, low-latency applications such as augmented reality/virtual reality. Another group is developing new algorithms to support AI/ML applications.

Here’s a rundown of Wi-Fi standards broken down into four categories: core standards that are widely deployed today, newly approved standards that are making their way into the mainstream, niche standards, and future standards that are in the works.

What are the Wi-Fi core standards?

Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)

Dating back to 2013, Wi-Fi 5 operates on the 5 GHz frequency band and supports multiple input multiple output (MIMO) technology. This allows for faster data transmission and better overall coverage. Wi-Fi 5 can theoretically transmit data at speeds of up to 3.5 Gbps, but speeds of more than 1 Gbps are more realistic. Wi-Fi 5 devices are still widely deployed, primarily in consumer and home office deployments.

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): High-efficiency

The Wi-Fi 6 standard, published in 2021, is targeted at dense scenarios, such as sports stadiums, airports, offices, etc. Wi-Fi 6 operates in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums and, through more efficient spectrum utilization, promises four times the throughput of Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 employs a multi-user mechanism that allows the 9.6Gbps data rate to be split among multiple devices. It also supports routers sending data to multiple devices in one broadcast frame and it enables Wi-Fi devices to schedule transmissions to the router. Collectively, these features improve aggregate throughput and support the use of Wi-Fi in data-heavy situations, as well as for applications like video and cloud access, where real-time performance and low-power consumption for battery-powered devices are required.

Wi-Fi 6E: Enhanced Wi-Fi 6

Enhanced Wi-Fi 6 sounds like a simple extension of Wi-Fi 6, but it represents a significant technology milestone: Wi-Fi 6E is the first standard that utilizes the 6GHz frequency band, which was recently made available by the FCC. The jump to 6GHz quadruples the number of airwaves by making available 14 additional 80MHz channels and 7 additional MHz channels. Wi-Fi 6E has the same maximum theoretical speed as Wi-Fi 6 (9.6Gbps), but it has higher real-world speeds and better range. Wi-Fi 6E can support online gaming, high-definition video, telepresence and unified communications. But it also requires new hardware.

What are the emerging Wi-Fi standards?

Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be): Extremely high throughput

Wi-Fi 7, known as Extremely High Throughput, is the first standard built from the ground up to run on the 6 GHz frequency. (It also runs on 2.4 and 5GHz spectrums to accommodate countries that have not made the 6GHz band available for Wi-Fi.) Wi-Fi 7 features 320 ultra-wide channels; multi-link operation (MLO), which allows devices to transmit and receive data simultaneously for increased throughput and reduced latency; and 4K QAM, which achieves a 20% higher transmission rate than 1024 QAM.  Wi-Fi 7 is nearly 5 times faster than Wi-Fi 6, with a maximum theoretical speed of 46Gbps and an estimated real-world speed of 6Gbps. Use cases include multi-user AR/VR, immersive 3-D training, electronic gaming, hybrid work, industrial IoT, and automotive.  

According to IDC’s worldwide Wi-Fi technology forecast, Wi-Fi 7 will see rapid adoption across a broad ecosystem with more than 233 million devices expected to enter the market in 2024, growing to 2.1 billion devices by 2028. Smartphones, PCs, tablets, and access points (APs) will be the earliest adopters of Wi-Fi 7. Customer premises equipment (CPE) and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) equipment are also expected to gain early market traction, says IDC.

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s official certification program for Wi-Fi 7 devices marks an important milestone for potential enterprise users. The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 7 program, announced in January 2024, means that the lengthy standardization process the Wi-Fi Alliance goes through for each successive generation of Wi-Fi has reached a fairly stable place. The opening of official certification testing means that OEMs can now submit their products to verify that they’re Wi-Fi 7-compliant.

802.11bb: LiFi

The Global Light Communication Standard, published in November 2023, marks a milestone in the development of LiFi technology, which uses light rather than radio frequencies to transmit data. By harnessing the light spectrum, LiFi can deliver faster, more reliable wireless communications with better security compared to Wi-Fi and 5G. The IEEE 802.11bb standard defines the physical layer specifications and system architectures for LiFi and paves the way for the interoperability of LiFi systems with Wi-Fi.

802.11az: Next generation positioning

With increased use of augmented reality, personal tracking, social networking, health care monitoring, inventory control, and other applications, the need for accurate indoor localization for Wi-Fi-based has become important. The new IEEE 802.11az standard improves location accuracy from the current 1–2 meters down to centimeters.

The new standard enables use cases such as more accurate customer navigation inside a store; better asset tracking in warehouses, improved security methods, such as only allowing your computer to be turned on via your smartwatch, or keyless car entry that requires you to be in close proximity to the vehicle. The technology can also be used for secure point-of-scale payments, and can help your mobile device more easily connect to the appropriate access point in your home mesh network as you move around the house.

802.11bd: Next gen vehicle-to-vehicle communication

One of the concepts associated with the world of smart vehicles is that cars in close proximity can create ad-hoc vehicular networks in order to share information associated with safety and traffic management. The 802.11bd standard, published in March 2023, provides enhancements for next generation V2X communication. 802.11bd replaces 802.11p with 2X higher throughput, longer range, better support for positioning, and backward compatibility with 802.11p devices.

What are some niche Wi-Fi standards?

802.11ah: Wi-Fi HaLow

802.11ah defines the operation of license-exempt networks in frequency bands below 1GHz (typically the 900 MHz band), excluding the TV White Space bands. In the U.S., this includes 908-928MHz, with varying frequencies in other countries. The purpose of 802.11ah is to create extended-range Wi-Fi networks that go beyond typical networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz space (remember, lower frequency means longer range), with data speeds up to 347Mbps.

In addition, the standard aims to have lower energy consumption, useful for Internet of Things devices to communicate across long ranges without using a lot of energy. But it also could compete with Bluetooth technologies in the home due to its lower energy needs.

802.11ad: High throughput, short distance

802.11ad is very fast – it can provide up to 6.7Gbps of data rate across the 60 GHz frequency, but that comes at a cost of distance – you achieve this only if your client device is situated within 3.3 meters (only 11 feet) of the access point.

802.11ay: Next gen 60GHz

This standard supports a maximum throughput of at least 20 Gbps within the 60GHz frequency (802.11ad currently achieves up to 7 Gbps), as well as increasing the range and reliability. The standard was published in July 2021.

What Wi-Fi standards are in the pipeline?

802.11bf: WLAN sensing

This standard explores the use of a WLAN that could sense wireless signals in order to detect features of an intended target in a given environment, such as the range, velocity, angle, motion, presence or proximity, or gestures. Objects could be human or animal, and environments could be in a room, house, vehicle, or office. Final approval expected in late 2024 or early 2025.

802.11bh: Randomized and changing MAC addresses

The 802.11aq standard formalized MAC privacy for 802.11 stations, which includes changing their MAC address and/or using a randomized MAC address. However, this can have a wide range of repercussions that impact not only 802.11 networks, but also many related services. This working group was formed to develop an amendment to mitigate these impacts, while continuing to protect the user privacy advantages provided by randomized and/or changing MAC addresses. Final approval is slated for 2024.

802.11bi: Enhanced data privacy

The goal of this standard is to specify modifications to the 802.11 media access control (MAC) specification to create new mechanisms that address and improve user privacy. Users and governments are concerned about protecting personal information such as location, movements, contacts and activities. Final approval is expected in late 2024 or early 2025.

What futuristic Wi-Fi standards are being worked on?

  • Battery-free IoT networks: The IEEE has created a working group to look at the potential use of ambient power – power gathered from the environment – that can be converted to electricity and used to power distributed IoT devices. Battery-free IoT networks could benefit multiple industries, including agriculture, smart grid, mining, manufacturing, logistics, smart home, transportation, and more. 
  • Augmented/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) and the Metaverse â€“ AR/VR requires extremely high data throughput and ultra-low latency. The IEEE 802.11 Extremely High Throughput Study Group has been established to explore new Wi-Fi features for bands between 1 and 7.125 GHz that would increase peak throughput to support these demanding applications.
  • Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) â€“ AI/ML requires large amounts of data moving between data sources, such as cameras, smartphones, and gaming devices, and a centralized server, where the data is analyzed. To address this need, new AI/ML algorithms can be developed that allow more analysis at the source, reducing the amount of data a network needs to carry.

Are we ready for Wi-Fi 8?

Finally, even though Wi-Fi 7 hasn’t been officially ratified, the IEEE is already hard at work on Wi-Fi 8, known as Ultra-High Reliability.

Wi-Fi 8 is targeting reliability, with a focus on service availability and delay guarantees. Specifically, the Wi-Fi 8 study group is investigating seamless connectivity via distributed multi-link operation (MLO), abundant spectrum via integrated millimeter wave operations, determinism via PHY and MAC enhancements, and controlled worst-case delay via AP coordination.

The Wi-Fi 8 standard (802.11bn) is slated for completion in 2028.

Mobile, Networking, Small and Medium Business, Wi-Fi

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