With the launch of Netflix streaming, viewers everywhere wanted in on the action. The first wireless presentation-sharing devices began coming to market. Those laughable wireless projector demos from a decade earlier were quickly forgotten, and homes, schools, and businesses began installing Wi-Fi access points everywhere. Terms like “mesh networks” became part of the lexicon. Having wired Ethernet connections everywhere in a building didn’t seem so important anymore.
Today, the tables have turned completely. Wi-Fi is an essential part of our everyday lives. Streaming video, once seen as impractical, is an afterthought now. In fact, streaming video is by far the largest revenue generator for the movie industry, having surpassed optical disc years ago. With fast Wi-Fi, we can communicate anywhere from any device.
Today’s appliances depend on it, as do our personal health devices. Entire categories of “smart” gadgets have sprung up in recent years; some of them rather silly like connected pet food dispensers. When we travel, we can use fast Wi-Fi on trains, airplanes, and subways. When we check into a hotel, our room key holder includes a Wi-Fi password. Internet telephony, once an obscure, “out there” way of getting around expensive long-distance calling, is now a standard feature of mobile phone service plans. Service providers reflect that new reality in their monthly plans – no one charges for minutes or texts anymore, just gigabytes of data.
20 years after its birth, Wi-Fi has matured with version 6, aka 802.11ax. This version has really been turbocharged, using a bunch of tricks to boost speeds. Each Internet frame is denser, with more symbols, and the length of each symbol is longer. Channel bonding has gotten more sophisticated to increase and decrease bandwidth as needed dynamically, and each Wi-Fi radio can quickly determine if a channel is in use and move to another, quieter channel to complete a transmission. Wi-Fi is also “green,” as access points can tell a user’s radio to “sleep” until a specific time to transmit and receive data.
The MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) technique of using multiple antennas has also matured. With 802.11ac, an access point could talk to multiple connected devices simultaneously, but those devices couldn’t respond in the same way. Now, the multiple-user MIMO in Wi-Fi 6 lets devices respond to the wireless access point at the same time. And an enhanced version of OFDM dynamically chops up wireless channels on the fly to allow more data to flow between more devices, allocating bandwidth as needed and when needed.
The Wi-Fi 6 standard was officially released two years ago, but we’re now seeing a wave of Wi-Fi 6 modems and routers coming to stores, ranging in price from $250 to $450 for individual modems and routers to $600 – $700 for complete systems with mesh transceivers. These products claim speeds of up to 4 Gb/s @ 5 GHz and 1-2 Gb/s @ 2.4 GHz. Of course, those speeds are claimed for optimal conditions over short ranges, but given that Full HD video can be reliably streamed @ 5-6 Mb/s using the H.264 codec, you should have plenty of headroom.