An airport operator in California and a British aerospace manufacturer are among the first organizations to put Wi-Fi 6 networks to the test. Boingo Wireless has begun testing Wi-Fi 6 access points and compatible smartphones at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, it announced earlier this month, while Mettis Aerospace says it will begin its own trial of the new protocol at its manufacturing facility in Redditch, England, in the second half of this year.
“We’re still defining what the success criteria will be,” says Mettis IT head Dave Green, but the firm plans to test the next-generation of Wi-Fi for a few applications: collecting sensor data from machines on the factory floor, allowing staff to use augmented reality-enabled tablets to troubleshoot problems, and transmitting live video feeds from harder-to-reach areas on the factory floor. Green says they know these applications will require low latency—one of Wi-Fi 6’s improvements over its predecessor—and the ability to handle hundreds of simultaneous connections at once—another of the standard’s selling points.
Wi-Fi 6 is the latest iteration of the now 20-year-old commercial Wi-Fi network technology. The Wi-Fi protocol is enormously popular, but like highways to popular places, it can get jammed up by too many users (see “Why Wi-Fi Stinks—and How to Fix It”, IEEE Spectrum, June 2016.)
So rather than focusing on improving the maximum theoretical speed for a single device on a network, the Wi-Fi 6 protocol includes changes that should make it possible for access points to keep up the speed for a growing number of devices and deliver as much as four times the throughput per user. (If you miss the old IEEE naming convention, the one that began 802.11a, 802.11b, before somehow ending with 802.11ax, sorry, but the Wi-Fi Alliance axed it.)
Kishore Raja, vice president for engineering strategic programs at Boingo Wireless, says Boingo is now focusing its efforts at John Wayne Airport on establishing backward-compatibility with non-Wi-Fi 6 devices. So far, only the airport’s staff can access the Wi-Fi 6 trial network with an early Wi-Fi 6-capable smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S10. Once the service is fully deployed across the airport, the first public users to access Wi-Fi 6 networks may have older devices. As new devices emerge, Boingo will invite partners to test them first on the airport’s trial network.
Boingo is interested in deploying Wi-Fi 6 in high-density environments such as airports, sports stadiums, and military bases: all places where a sudden rush of users can overwhelm a conventional network. Boingo will be testing traffic handoffs between cellular and its new Wi-Fi 6 network, Raja says, to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s ability to handle more devices on a given network.
Cellular networks, which are licensed and operate over longer distances, have evolved through several generations (and naming conventions) alongside Wi-Fi and the two have begun to merge in some ways.
Network operators both large and small are scrambling to keep up with industrial and consumer demand as more and more devices require a network connection. Even far-flung cows are getting their own cellular connections. And the Wi-Fi network at the home of one IEEE Spectrum columnist supports more than 60 Internet of Things devices.
Wi-Fi 6 will better align with the lower-power IoT than previous power-hungry Wi-Fi iterations because it allows peripheral devices to rest between transmissions, saving battery life. To do this, it agrees on a future check-in time for that device, so the device can go into standby mode in the meantime.
Hardware-makers are already getting on board: in addition to Samsung’s new smartphone, Intel announced on 16 April that it would offer one of the first chips in the marketplace compatible with Wi-Fi 6. Earlier this month, Intel also announced a Wi-Fi 6 network adapter to PC makers.
Wi-Fi 6 is almost ready for takeoff.
Lucas Laursen is a journalist covering global development by way of science and technology with special interest in energy and agriculture. He has lived in and reported from the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Mexico.