On September 16, the Wi-Fi Alliance officially announced the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 certification program. This is an exciting announcement in the world of wireless and will help usher more Wi-Fi 6 devices into the marketplace.
For those unfamiliar with the Wi-Fi Alliance, it is a worldwide group of companies who work together to build sets of standards to which manufacturers can conform to guarantee interoperability between products. From the Wi-Fi Alliance website: “Wi-Fi Alliance drives global Wi-Fi adoption and evolution through thought leadership, spectrum advocacy, and industry-wide collaboration. Our work helps ensure that Wi-Fi devices and networks provide users the interoperability, security, and reliability they have come to expect.”
Consumers purchasing Wi-Fi devices certified by the alliance can expect, at minimum, specific features to interoperate between other products that also hold the certification. Even though many manufacturers build features in addition to those listed in the standard (which often do not guarantee compatibility outside of their own ecosystem), the promise of a common set of supported features gives the consumer assurance that certified devices can still interoperate.
Wi-Fi 6 Feature Improvements
The Wi-Fi 6 certification calls out a host of required features, many of which are probably not a shock to those keeping up on the technology. I’ve written in previous blog posts about WPA3 (which designates support as required rather than optional) as well as OFDMA and TWT, which I found to be some of the more compelling features for Wi-Fi 6.
Additionally, listed are multi-user multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO), 160MHz channels, 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM), and transmit beamforming. MU-MIMO allows more data to be transmitted at once by allowing an access point to send data concurrently to more than one downstream device, increasing airtime efficiency. 1024-QAM refers to the encoding rate and, compared to the 256-QAM encoding rate given to us by Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), this is a significant increase.
One thing to note, though, with encoding rates, while they’re often touted for “speeds and feeds” numbers, this often doesn’t tell the full story. While a higher encoding rate does mean more data can be sent in the same amount of spectrum, it’s often very difficult to decode at these high rates as they are very sensitive to noise in the environment. Often, we see success decoding at higher rates occurring very close to the access point (AP) because there is enough signal to overcome the noise, but less success as the client moves away from the AP where the signal is harder to “hear” through the noise.
The bottom line is that while higher data rates do mean there are some speed gains, it does not equate to “4 times faster than 802.11ac.” The good news is that higher rates in combination with transmit beamforming will give us some middle ground to see a speed increase. Aruba’s Wi-Fi 6 white paper has good detail on all the items (QAM, special streams, sensitivity, etc.) that are involved in determining the client’s achieved data rate.
Finally, 160MHz channels refer to the maximum channel width that can be utilized under Wi-Fi 6. Realistically, most consumers will not be able to use 160MHz channels in their entire environment, but there could be specific edge cases where this might be used to some advantage.
What Devices Are Certified Wi-Fi 6?
Included in the announcement are the devices and chipsets that can be considered Wi-Fi 6 certified today. Hot on the heels of the Samsung Galaxy Note10 being named the first Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 smartphone, devices like Apple’s iPhone 11, which have Wi-Fi 6 included in their specifications, will ultimately have one of these listed chips in them in order to meet certification.
- Broadcom BCM4375
- Broadcom BCM43698
- Broadcom BCM43684
- Cypress CYW 89650 Auto-Grade Wi-Fi 6 Certified
- Intel Wi-Fi 6 (Gig+) AX200 (for PCs)
- Intel Home Wi-Fi Chipset WAV600 Series (for routers and gateways)
- Marvell 88W9064 (4×4) Wi-Fi 6 Dual-Band STA
- Marvell 88W9064 (4×4) + 88W9068 (8×8) Wi-Fi 6 Concurrent Dual-Band AP
- Qualcomm Networking Pro 1200 Platform
- Qualcomm FastConnect 6800 Wi-Fi 6 Mobile Connectivity Subsystem
- Ruckus R750 Wi-Fi 6 Access Point
Waiting on Final Wi-Fi 6 Ratification
One last piece in this puzzle worth mentioning is that the Wi-Fi 6 ratification isn’t complete yet. As of the writing of this blog post, most vendors are releasing products using the third draft of the specification. According to the IEEE’s AX task group update page, the final approval (at best) is still slated for January 2020 with Draft 4.0 still waiting to be passed.
Fortunately, the Wi-Fi Alliance certification helps us here by laying out the target for interoperability regardless of the current state of the standard. Ultimately, that should help smooth out transitions from hardware released “pre-standard” to devices that come out after full ratification. In the changing world of Wi-Fi 6, I believe that the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification release will be a helpful data point for consumers considering what devices to roll into their environment both near term and further down the line.