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  • Utkarsh Singh

Demystifying Wi-Fi: A Comprehensive Comparison of Wi-Fi 5, 6, and 7

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity, refers to a wireless communication technology that allows devices to connect to the internet and communicate with each other wirelessly. It enables data transmission between devices using radio waves, eliminating the need for physical wired connections.


Wi-Fi operates based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards, which defines the specifications for wireless networks. It uses radio frequency bands to transmit data, typically in the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequency ranges. Wi-Fi technology enables devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and IoT devices to connect to the internet and access online services, browse the web, stream media, and communicate with other devices on the same network.


Wi-Fi networks consist of a router or access point that acts as a central hub, transmitting and receiving data, and one or more client devices that connect to the network. The router or access point broadcasts signals, and devices within range can detect and connect to the network by providing the correct network credentials, such as a password.

Wi-Fi vs. Traditional Wired Networks

Wi-Fi provides several advantages over traditional wired networks. It is more convenient and flexible, allowing people to move around freely while staying connected to the internet. It is also faster and more reliable than earlier wireless technologies, making it possible to stream high-definition videos, play online games, and use other bandwidth-intensive applications.


Limitations of Wi-Fi

  1. Limited Range: Wi-Fi signals have a limited range, and their strength and quality can be affected by obstacles such as walls, furniture, and other electronic devices. The range can vary depending on the specific Wi-Fi standard and the environment in which it is deployed. In larger spaces or buildings with thick walls, additional Wi-Fi access points or signal boosters may be needed to ensure coverage.

  2. Interference: Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed frequency bands, which means that other devices using the same frequency range can cause interference. Common sources of interference include microwave ovens, cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, and neighboring Wi-Fi networks. Interference can degrade Wi-Fi performance and reduce connection speeds.

  3. Bandwidth Sharing: Wi-Fi networks are shared environments, and the available bandwidth is shared among connected devices. In crowded areas or networks with many active users, the available bandwidth per device may decrease, leading to slower internet speeds and reduced performance.

  4. Security Risks: Wi-Fi networks can be vulnerable to security risks if not properly secured. Unencrypted or weakly encrypted Wi-Fi networks can be accessed by unauthorized users, leading to data breaches, identity theft, and unauthorized network access. It is important to implement strong security measures such as using WPA2/WPA3 encryption, and strong passwords, and regularly updating the firmware to mitigate these risks.

  5. Speed Limitations: While Wi-Fi technology has evolved to provide faster speeds with each new standard (e.g., 802.11ac, 802.11ax), the actual achievable speeds can be influenced by factors such as distance from the access point, signal interference, and the capabilities of the connected devices. In certain scenarios, wired Ethernet connections can provide faster and more reliable speeds compared to Wi-Fi.

IEEE 802.11 Architecture

802.11, also known as IEEE 802.11, is a set of protocols that defines the different types of communication that can occur on a Wi-Fi network across various wireless frequencies. It is often mentioned alongside Wi-Fi and was instrumental in naming each generation of Wi-Fi connectivity before the recent shift in naming standards. It remains part of the technical term for each Wi-Fi generation, typically followed by a letter or group of letters. For example, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11d, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. However, newer and simpler naming conventions incorporating generation labels are now being adopted.

Data Link Layer

  • Logical Link Control (LLC) is a sublayer of the Data Link Layer of the OSI model, which is responsible for providing a reliable communication link between two devices connected via a wireless network. In IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi), the LLC sublayer is responsible for providing a common interface to the upper-layer protocols, enabling communication between different devices on the same wireless network.

  • Medium Access Control (MAC) is a sublayer of the Data Link Layer in the OSI model. It is responsible for managing access to the shared communication medium (such as a wireless channel or a wired Ethernet network) among multiple devices that are connected to it. In a shared communication medium, multiple devices can send data at the same time, which can lead to collisions and loss of data.

Physical Layer

  • FHSS stands for Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum, and it is one of the two primary modulation techniques used in the physical layer of the IEEE 802.11 wireless networking standard (the other being Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum or DSSS). In FHSS, the wireless signal hops quickly and randomly between multiple frequency channels within the available bandwidth, typically changing channels hundreds or even thousands of times per second. This frequency hopping helps to mitigate interference from other devices operating in the same frequency range, as well as provide some level of security against eavesdropping or jamming.

  • DSSS stands for Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum, and it is a modulation technique used in the physical layer of many wireless networking standards, including IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi). In DSSS, the data to be transmitted is spread across a much wider bandwidth than is strictly necessary for the actual data rate. This is done by modulating the data signal with a much higher rate "spreading code" signal that is unique to the particular transmitter/receiver pair. The resulting spread signal appears as noise to any other devices that may be listening in on the same frequency band.

  • IR stands for Infrared, and it is a physical layer communication technology used in some of the older versions of IEEE 802.11 wireless networking standards.

Different Generations and Advancements of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi 5

The fifth generation of wireless networking technologies, known as Wi-Fi 5 or IEEE 802.11ac, uses the 5GHz band frequency to deliver high throughput in wireless local area networks (LANs).


Key Features of Wi-Fi 5

  • Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ac) introduced several improvements over its predecessor Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), including the use of the less congested 5GHz frequency band, which reduces interference from other devices using the 2.4GHz band.

  • Additionally, Wi-Fi 5 supports wider channels, which can increase the data transfer rate. The maximum theoretical speed for Wi-Fi 5 is 6.9 Gbps, which is significantly faster than the maximum speed of 600 Mbps for Wi-Fi 4.

  • Other improvements in Wi-Fi 5 include the use of multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) technology, which enables multiple devices to communicate with the router simultaneously, and beamforming, which allows the router to focus its signal on specific devices for better performance.

  • Overall, Wi-Fi 5 offers significant advantages over Wi-Fi 4 in terms of speed, performance, and reliability, making it a popular choice for many homes and businesses today.

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is the latest generation of Wi-Fi technology in use that is designed to improve network efficiency and connectivity in crowded areas where there are many connected devices.


Key Features of Wi-Fi 6

  • One of the defining characteristics of Wi-Fi 6 is the Target Wake Time (TWT) technology, which allows devices to "sleep" when they are not in use, thereby conserving battery life. This is particularly useful for IoT devices that require connectivity but don't need to be constantly active.

  • Wi-Fi 6 also provides faster speeds than previous generations of Wi-Fi, both for individual devices and for the network as a whole, especially in environments with several connected devices. Additionally, it includes enhanced security features to ensure secure internet use. And finally, one of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 is its backward compatibility with Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4 devices, meaning that even if you have older devices that don't support Wi-Fi 6, they can still connect to a Wi-Fi 6 network.

  • MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology is an important component of Wi-Fi 6 that was first introduced in the 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) protocol. MU-MIMO allows multiple devices to communicate with the access point simultaneously, rather than taking turns, which improves network efficiency and reduces latency.

  • One of the main advantages of MU-MIMO is that it allows for the efficient transfer of data from multiple devices at the same time, which is especially useful in crowded environments where many devices are connected to the network. The more advanced version of MU-MIMO in Wi-Fi 6 can support up to 8 users, compared to 4 users in 802.11ac. However, MU-MIMO is not supported by older Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11b, g, and n. So, to take advantage of this technology, both the access point and the endpoints must support MU-MIMO.

  • OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) is a crucial characteristic of Wi-Fi 6 that allows multiple devices with different bandwidth requirements to connect to the network simultaneously, increasing overall network efficiency. This is achieved by dividing the frequency band into smaller subcarriers, each of which can be assigned to a different device, reducing latency and increasing network capacity.

  • Another important feature of Wi-Fi 6 is the support for more streams across the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which allows for faster connections and improved network performance. Wi-Fi 6 can support up to 12 streams, while Wi-Fi 5 is limited to 8 streams. This means that devices that support Wi-Fi 6 can achieve a 40% speed boost over Wi-Fi 5 devices.

  • With the increasing number of IoT devices in smart homes, Wi-Fi 6 was designed to handle the growing number of connected devices without slowing down the network. This ensures a seamless streaming experience for IoT devices like lights, switches, thermostats, and other smart home gadgets.

  • In addition, Wi-Fi 6 is also well-suited for multiple concurrent high-definition video streaming sessions, such as 4K or 8K resolution, without buffering or interruptions owing to faster processors, more memory, and more radio streams. This is especially important in households with many users who may be streaming video simultaneously.

Wi-Fi 7

  • Wi-Fi 7 is still in development and not yet available for consumer use. However, the planned improvements suggest that Wi-Fi 7 will bring significant advancements to wireless networking. The ultra-wide bandwidth and advanced modulation techniques, such as 4096-QAM, will allow for faster data transmission rates and increased capacity for more devices to connect to the network simultaneously. Multi-RU (Resource Unit) and Multi-Link Operation will also improve the overall network efficiency and reduce latency.

  • Overall, Wi-Fi 7 promises to deliver a superior wireless networking experience with faster speeds, better reliability, and increased capacity, making it an exciting development for those who rely heavily on Wi-Fi for their daily needs.

  • It's important to note that while Wi-Fi 7 is expected to provide significantly faster speeds than Wi-Fi 6 and previous generations, the actual speed improvements may vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the number of devices connected to the network, the distance between the devices and the router, and the quality of the wireless signal. Additionally, the adoption of Wi-Fi 7 by device manufacturers and the availability of compatible devices may take some time, so it may be a while before consumers can fully take advantage of the new standard.

Multi-link Operation (MLO) and Challenges

While Wi-Fi 7 allows for 16x16 MIMO configurations, which can provide very high speeds, it's unlikely that most mobile client devices will have that many antennas. In fact, most devices will likely continue to operate with 2x2 or 4x4 MIMO setups. Additionally, in order to reach its peak speeds, Wi-Fi 7 requires both 16 streams and 320 MHz channels, which may not be feasible for many clients. However, even with fewer streams and narrower channels, Wi-Fi 7 will still provide faster and more efficient wireless connectivity than previous Wi-Fi standards.

Wi-Fi 5

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 7

Year

2013

2019

2020

2024 (Expected)

IEEE Standard

802.11ac

802.11ax

802.11ax

802.11be

Max data rate

3.5 Gbps

9.6 Gbps

9.6 Gbps

45 Gbps

Frequency Bands

5 GHz

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

6 GHz

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

6 GHz

Channel Size

Up to 160 MHz

Up to 160 MHz

Up to 160 MHz

Up to 320 MHz

Access

OFDM

OFDMA

OFDMA

OFDMA (with extensions)

QAM Modulation

256-QAM

1024-QAM

1024-QAM

4096-QAM

Spatial Streams

4

8

8

16

MIMO

4x4 MIMO, DL MU-MIMO

8x8 UL/DL MU-MIMO

8x8 UL/DL MU-MIMO

16x16 UL/DL MU-MIMO

Wi-Fi Security

WPA 2

WPA 3

WPA 3

WPA 4

Max Speed with 1 Spatial System

866.7 Mbps

1.2 Gbps

1.2 Gbps

2.9 Gbps

Max Speed with 2 Spatial Systems

1.73 Gbps

2.5 Gbps

2.5 Gbps

5.8 Gbps

Max Speed with Max # Spatial System

6.9 Gbps

9.6 Gbps

9.6 Gbps

46 Gbps

Conclusion

While Wi-Fi 6 offers significant improvements over Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 7 is expected to take wireless networking to the next level. Wi-Fi 7 is expected to offer faster speeds, greater efficiency, and better security compared to Wi-Fi 6. The introduction of new technologies such as sub-6GHz and mmWave is anticipated, which will further improve network performance and coverage. However, it is important to note that Wi-Fi 7 is still in the development stage, and it may take some time before it becomes widely available in the market.


Overall, Wi-Fi 7 offers significant improvements in speed, frequency bands, and features compared to Wi-Fi 5 and 6, making it the most advanced and capable wireless technology to date.


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