Wi-Fi 6: What It Means for the Convention Industry

By; Chris Wharry, Smart City General Manager, George R. Brown Convention Center

In 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced the debut of a new version of Wi-Fi called IEEE 802.11ax, or better known as Wi-Fi 6. Key among the improvements over the current standard of IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) include better energy management for battery-powered devices, the ability to send information to multiple devices at once with a single transmission, better support in high-density environments, and increased data transfer speeds. These improvements mean that consumers congregating in large venues such as conventions and tradeshows, or those that have an abundance of smart devices competing for bandwidth might be among those with the most to gain.

Continue reading for a list of a few of the features and advantages to using Wi-Fi 6 technologies.

Battery Life

With Wi-Fi 6, battery life is extended through a feature called Target Wake Time (TWT). TWT permits a wireless access point to tell your device when exactly to wake up and go to sleep. This feature allows devices to spend more time in sleep mode than with previous wireless technologies, requiring less energy use, thus saving battery life.

Congested Environments

Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) is a multi-user feature that splits data transmission signals into much smaller signals. OFDMA is most useful in an environment where multiple connections transmit limited data. Think of a keynote address in a convention center with thousands of connected users; only the users are homes waiting for packages. OFDMA acts like a delivery truck delivering multiple packages with multiple stops along its route. Before Wi-Fi 6, that truck could only carry one package. Through OFDMA, there is improved latency for small packet transmission.

Wi-Fi 6 comes equipped with an additional advantage in congested environments called Basic Service Set (BSS) Coloring. BSS Coloring technology helps mitigate overlapping transmission channels by intelligently tagging shared frequencies with a “color.” “Color coding” or marking shared frequencies with a number allows access points to decide if simultaneous spectrum use is permissible. A channel is only unavailable when the same “color” is detected, enabling a network to perform more efficiently while transmitting data.

Transfer Speed

Theoretically, Wi-Fi 6 can reach speeds of up to 9.6 Gbps. Individual devices may not run much faster than the current Wi-Fi 5, but the total available bandwidth will increase. These speeds are achieved by using multi-user technologies OFDMA and Multi-User Multiple Input Output (MU-MIMO). MU-MIMO allows an access point to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously. This communication provides for increased data transfer speeds without increased congestion. These two technologies combined improve capacity and performance significantly by allowing for a more thorough use of the spectrum and more simultaneous connections.

What will you have to do?

Not a lot. Wi-Fi 6 utilizes both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz spectrums, making it backward compatible with all previous Wi-Fi gear. Using a router that supports the new standard won’t interfere with your current smart devices. However, you won’t be able to utilize the fastest speeds until you switch everything over to being Wi-Fi 6 enabled.

Wi-Fi 6 is making a significant impact on the wireless industry, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Offering up to a four-fold increase in capacity over Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 will become the standard by 2021. Even though manufacturers have entered a few access points and mobile phones into the market utilizing Wi-Fi 6, ratification is not yet complete. Initially slated for Q3/Q4 of 2019, ratification could likely be closer to mid-2020 before being finally approved. Manufacturers are producing hardware before this in hopes of a simple software patch once complete. Even so, it will still take some time for devices to saturate the field and fully take advantage of the features Wi-Fi 6 brings.

What does this mean for the convention industry? 

In the convention industry, the demand for faster data transfer speeds has skyrocketed due to the addition of video streaming, mobile conferences, virtual reality, augmented reality, and webcasting, to name a few. Convention centers will need to continually grow their network infrastructure capacity to support the increased demands that exhibitors and attendees bring into a facility. The advent of Wi-Fi 6 makes it all possible.