How Wi-Fi 6 will transform connectivity in your home, at the office, and beyond

The next generation of Wi-Fi is upon us. On offer? The allure of an even faster way to connect to speedy broadband networks. Wi-Fi 6, as it’s more colloquially known, aims to replace the current technology used today, and the new standard promises not only faster speeds but also more capacity, lower latency, longer battery life, extended range, and better security to a world with a growing number of connected devices.

It’s not only for first to adopters though. You can still take advantage of some of the benefits when connecting to public hotspots in the future. In fact, companies like Cisco aim to make connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots simple, more secure, and increasingly seamless.

We got the behind the scenes story on how Wi-Fi 6 could turn out to be the most significant change to connectivity we’ll all notice in 2019 and beyond.

The need for speed

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

We might use 4G connections when we’re on the go, but nowhere do we use more data than on Wi-Fi. Whether it’s at home, the office, or a coffee shop, Wi-Fi is the connection we rely on for things like activities like large data transfers and playing online games. 

Though the standard is backwards compatible with previous Wi-Fi generations, you’ll need a device with Wi-Fi 6 and a router that supports the new standard to realize the full range of benefits of the new technology. New Wi-Fi 6-enabled laptops and routers will have access to the promise of up to 10 Gbps speeds that comes with the new standard, which is three times the speed of Wi-Fi 5. If you’re on a network with multiple devices connecting, you can even expect around 100 Mbps or more per device.

This means that we can finally take advantage of faster and more expensive broadband packages. “You need to be thinking the range of 250 Mbps to 1Gbps internet because your infrastructure will now be able to pull that down,” Cisco Senior Vice President of Product Management Sachin Gupta told Digital Trends.

There are several underlying technologies that enable Wi-Fi 6 to deliver these speed improvements, including expanded support for multiple-user, multiple input, multiple output, or MU-MIMO, and new core OF-DMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access). Essentially, all this adds up to is that “there’s better usage of the spectrum of available, and that’s how you get enhanced capacity,” Gupta summarized.

But it’s not all just about speed. In addition to these enhancements that all Wi-Fi 6 devices will benefit from, companies like Cisco are also innovating at the access point level provide public and private enterprise networks even more capabilities.

Improved battery life

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“Wi-Fi 6 inherently brings a lot of advantages, like four times the capacity, much better latency, much better battery life, and it also allows Cisco to add differentiation across the entire stack,” Gupta said.

A significant advantage for Wi-Fi 6 devices is better battery life. Though the standard promotes Internet of Things (IoT) devices being able to last for weeks, instead of days, on a single charge as a major benefit, the technology could even prove to be beneficial for computers, especially since Intel’s latest 9th-generation processors for laptops come with Wi-Fi 6 support.

The one angle that is underplayed but is important is the battery savings.

“The one angle that is underplayed but is important is the battery savings,” Gupta said, highlighting how chips on connected devices, like a smart wheelchair, can last for up to a month, rather than a week, on a single charge and still be able to send data as needed in the background. “The battery life that you can get with Wi-Fi 6 is significantly better than with Wi-Fi 5.”

If Wi-Fi 6’s promise for longer battery life can be extended in the future to PCs, we may see mainstream laptops powered by Intel and AMD’s x86 processors become more competitive with always-on computers powered by Qualcomm’s ARM-based Snapdragon silicon. More efficient Wi-Fi 6 chips on a laptop can enable things like background data refreshes when the PC is in sleep mode and within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, making Ultrabooks more competitive against the Always Connected PC platform led by Qualcomm and Microsoft. These Always Connected PCs boast background data refresh – even while the PC is in sleep mode, similar to how a smartphone works – as well as up to 20 hours of battery life.

Safer hotspots

wi fi 6 transform pc cisco usa  new york city businessman sitting in coffee shop using digital tablet

The hardware enhancements that makes connecting to Cisco-enhanced Wi-Fi 6 hotspots easier will also make security more seamless. Gupta explained that the company is working with device manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, to allow enterprises operating campus Wi-Fi networks to quickly identify the devices and the user.

“Another capability is user segmentation and user identity,” he said. “That’s a capability that you can start with Wi-Fi 5 but the analytics with Wi-Fi 6 makes it better.”

If you were to have a security issue with your work device, IT managers could quickly pinpoint the problem and offer remediation steps to address any issues. By being able to access the software and hardware on the device, the network can be leveraged for root cause analysis should any device problem occur.

Wi-Fi 6 could help reduce the risk of a malicious actor hijacking a network.

“Our [access points] support a custom RF ASIC, which means we have Cisco silicon on the AP. This allows us to analyze the layer 1 through 7 data,” Gupta explained on how the technology works. “We can look at data on how packet data is moving on the RF through the application layer to do two things. First is to securely identify who you are and if you’re behaving in-profile. Secondly, to help troubleshoot any application experiences you may have.”

In theory, this should also help reduce the risk from a malicious actor hijacking a Wi-Fi network, whether it’s public or private. Still, Gupta advises that good hygiene should still be maintained, and all networks should be secured and encrypted.

Some of the capabilities include rogue device detection and giving networks even greater spectrum control by providing a device with the best slice of spectrum at any given time that it connects to avoid interference. In turn, these features allow public hotspots – like the ones at airports – and private networks – like your work Wi-Fi – to provide deliver a faster, more secure connection. Cisco has conducted interoperability testing with companies like Samsung and Intel to ensure that new devices will work on the Cisco enterprise infrastructure.

Easy roaming

When you take new Wi-Fi 6 computers, phones, and tablets, and connect them to newer public networks at your coffee shops, airports, and conference centers, you’ll benefit from the technology’s enhanced security.

Cisco is working with identity providers and access providers to create ways to securely authenticate devices through a new project called the Open Roaming Consortium. The promise of this consortium is to allow devices to hop between Cisco-powered Wi-Fi 6 networks without having to reauthenticate.

Once you login and accept the terms of service, you can hop between an airport Wi-Fi, your favorite Starbucks network, and the network at your hotel room without having to log in to each separate network if these locations participate in the consortium. “Wi-Fi networks will use our solution in the cloud to figure out who you are and onboard you seamlessly,” Gupta said.

The ability for a PC to seamlessly roam between access points could prove to be more valuable than 5G roaming.

Currently, disjointed networks mean that you’ll need to log in each instance and accept different service agreements.

Gupta claims that Cisco isn’t charging for this service, nor is the company trying to insert itself in the process. Rather, it wants to surface the benefits of the Wi-Fi experience by making it as easy as it is for cell phones to seamlessly hop between one tower to the next or roam on an adjacent network. Given that more than half the traffic still flows through Wi-Fi networks rather than cellular networks today, the ability for a PC to seamlessly roam between access points could prove to be more valuable than 5G roaming. In fact, the scarcity of laptops with built-in mobile broadband is one of the reasons prompting Qualcomm to back Microsoft’s Always Connected PC platform.

There’s plenty to be excited for about Wi-Fi 6, even if your home broadband connection still isn’t fast enough to handle the promise speed jumps. Faster speeds and low latency will benefit gamers and VR headsets, while longer battery life and better security offer a glimpse into how it’ll affect devices. As far as we’re concerned, the future can’t come fast enough.

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