Jul 02 2020

Improving Connections: The Advantages of Wi-Fi 6 for Online Learning

Wi-Fi 6 helps networks handle the massive surge in online learning traffic.

Zoom classes. Netflix shows. Livestreamed work webinars. With the majority of Americans continuing to work and learn from home, annoying network congestion is plaguing families who struggle with the limited bandwidth of Wi-Fi 5. This can be particularly frustrating for college students and their professors, especially with a significant portion of higher education schools planning to adopt the blended learning model in the coming academic year.

But there is a solution for that: Wi-Fi 6 can support up to four times the number of devices that Wi-Fi 5 can. Also known as the 802.11ax, this relatively new wireless connection standard promises big benefits for postsecondary schools — especially when paired with other emerging technologies, such as 5G mobile networks.

Already, Wi-Fi 6 is on the path to widespread adoption, thanks to a certification program from the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance. There’s a compelling case for speedy implementation: New wireless networks offer improved data traffic flow, battery life and stability.

For colleges and universities, sixth-generation Wi-Fi offers another attractive advantage: significantly improved device density. Here are three ways this new Wi-Fi can help drive better density on and off campus.

How Wi-Fi 6 Widens the Highway

While better speeds are part of the Wi-Fi 6 package, they’re not the primary advantage of this new approach. “This speed increase is not crazy, quantum levels,” says Frank Downs, senior director of the cybersecurity advisory of ISACA, a national association for IT governance professionals. “It’s about 30 percent or so.”

Instead, he says, the bigger advantage is that “you’re more guaranteed to have those speeds.”

Wi-Fi, Downs explains, widens the highway by adding four new antennae, for a total of eight per network device. “It’s like a 16-lane highway, eight up and eight down,” when combined with multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) functionality, he says.

More lanes means more room, and therefore more speed. Combined with intelligent timing of data transmissions to prevent potential collisions, the result is more space for every device on the highway — and less chance of a bottleneck.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to prepare for campus readiness while cutting costs.

Sharing the Road with OFDMA: How This Works

Using orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) “allows wireless access points and routers to support more devices at a lower latency, minimizing contention for channel access between Wi-Fi devices,” says Christian Gilby, director of product marketing at Mist Systems.

OFDMA accomplishes this goal by leveraging the spatial multiplexing protocol of MIMO, which splits device data into multiple streams for efficiency, then “splits the channel into even smaller chunks that can be allocated to multiple clients for simultaneous transmissions,” Gilby says.

In other words, OFDMA allows Wi-Fi 6 to dramatically increase density by splitting existing channels into even smaller slices and assigning a device to each one.

Then there’s the use of 1024-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) encoding technologies, which allow more bits to be encoded per symbol transmission over the air. “When you turn data into radio frequencies,” Gilby says, “you basically create signals and constellations, and the density of dots dictates how much can be transmitted in a given transmission period.”

Using 1024-QAM boosts data-encoding density by up to 25 percent in the same amount of spectrum, making it easier to simultaneously support more devices, even if they’re running throughput-intensive streaming or video apps.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how data analytics will help campuses reopen safely.

Wi-Fi 6 Opens a Two-Way Street for More Users

Along with wider highways and more lanes for device traffic, Wi-Fi 6 also introduces bidirectional multiuser MIMO. Under previous Wi-Fi standards, data from MU-MIMO went in only one direction: downstream. As Gilby notes, “Wi-Fi 6 has extended these capabilities, making it possible to send data upstream with MU-MIMO, adding a bidirectional capability to MU-MIMO’s beamforming functionality.”

Combining MU-MIMO and OFDMA makes it possible to increase both device parallelism and efficiency in high-density settings. In practice, this means more available connections. The new standard, Downs says, “should at least double the amount of connections, and arguably more, thanks to the subchannels.”

Planning for the Future of Higher Education

In addition to speed and stability, Wi-Fi 6 promises widened digital highways, extra data lanes and two-way traffic. The result? It’s now possible to significantly boost device density and empower anytime, anywhere connections for online learning.

Although the hope is for everyone to return to campus one day, colleges and universities will need Wi-Fi 6 to prevent future networks from being overwhelmed if another online learning pivot ever becomes necessary.

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