This week Broadcom released three new Wi-Fi chips that piqued my interest. These chips use the new 802.11ax standard known as Max Wi-Fi. With this generation of Wi-Fi chips, the standard has been redesigned from the ground up to perform much more efficiently, resulting in a 7x battery savings, download speed boosts of 4x and upload speed increases of 6x.
The biggest change in these chips isn’t actually about speed though, it’s about using the available spectrum for Wi-Fi more efficiently. For the first time, Wi-Fi will use something called orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) to manage how data travels over existing channels in the Wi-Fi spectrum bands. OFDMA has been used in cellular networks, so the concept isn’t new, but the use of it in Wi-Fi is.
That usage is an admission that Wi-Fi is changing. The number of Wi-Fi devices in a home, a business, a local coffee shop or a concert venue will only increase over time and we have to use the available spectrum more efficiently. This will enable the speed boosts mentioned, but it also helps extend the range of Wi-Fi further out. (Although the further out you go, the slower the speeds.)
Devices using these radios can reach theoretical speeds of 4.8 Gbps but Wi-Fi is no longer just be about speed. Today, coverage and the quality of coverage is more important as we push more devices to the farthest reaches of our homes and offices. For example, a water leak sensor from Phyn sits out at the home’s water meter. That’s going to require Wi-Fi to go a significant distance.
Since this newsletter is dedicated to the internet of things, I’m going to focus on what this new radio can and can’t do for connected devices.
That may be true, but for IoT use cases it’s the battery saving feature of 802.11ax that is most interesting. The 7x power efficiency could make Wi-Fi more practical to use for wireless sensors. A large amount of power savings comes from a new Target Wake Time feature that puts the Wi-Fi radio to sleep and lets the developer decide how often it should wake up to ping the router. However, it’s not clear how long it might be until we see these chips in sensors, or even video doorbells.
It’s not even clear how long we’ll have to wait until we see these chips in home routers. The general consensus with a few of the newer consumer Wi-Fi companies I spoke with is that this is exciting but not urgent. Rammohan Malasani, CEO of Securifi, which makes the Almond router, says that while the company is keeping up with the new standard, he’s not sure when it will arrive in new products.
He confirmed that the way 802.11ax boosts spectral efficiency will significantly improve the real world throughput of WiFi systems. He added that it should also help improve Wi-Fi range. A spokeswoman for Eero declined to comment on Eero’s future product plans, but the company did just release a second generation router this year, so I’m not optimistic about a rapid rush to 802.11ax.
A spokeswoman for Belkin, which makes the Linksys brand of routers, said the company couldn’t comment on future product plans, “but 802.11ax is the next generation of the 802.11 standard and you know Linksys – we strive to innovate and be first to market for Wi-Fi standard products for the Consumer and SMB space.”
Even if this doesn’t really have much impact for the consumer IoT, it could be a big deal for enterprises where hundreds of bandwidth sucking devices are trying to stream as much data as possible from the cloud. The ability to cram more devices and allocate bandwidth efficiently over many different applications is where the new standard will really shine.
If that means extra capacity for the older 802.11n or 802.11 ac devices on the network, then that’s fine by most IoT device companies.