Wi-Fi, like ice cream, is coming in many flavors

Coming 802.11ax Wi-Fi promises fast speeds to each user in a crowd; WiGig (802.11ad) gives quickness in a single room

Wi-Fi technology continues to evolve as wireless devices proliferate and demand for video and other data explodes.

In fact, the impact that Wi-Fi will have in the next few years cannot be understated.

New flavors of Wi-Fi are expected to become commonplace in the coming months and years. Standards are evolving or already in place to give one flavor of Wi-Fi the flexibility to work well for, say, every user in a large football stadium. Another flavor will work best for streaming a video in a single room in an apartment and won't leak through a wall to a neighbor's apartment.

Wi-Fi will be used with cellular connections more than it is today for smartphones, tablets and other devices in homes and offices.

Coming technologies will provide greater Wi-Fi support for public and semi-public spaces, such as parks, public squares, shopping malls and indoor and outdoor sporting arenas.

The emergence of 802.11ax Wi-Fi

Most smartphone users are familiar with connecting to the Web over older, slower Wi-Fi standards with technical names such as 802.11a, b, g and n.

The advent of faster 802.11ac began when the first 802.11ac router shipped in 2012. (As a rule or thumb, an entire network with an 802.11ac router functions at up to 1.3 Gbps, about three times the 450Mbps of 802.11n routers.)

But even before a second wave of improved 802.11ac routers hits in 2015, a new 802.11ax standard is in the works at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. That body is still defining the standard, and likely won't ratify it until early 2019.

"There's a lot of industry activity to identify what mechanisms go into 802.11ax and what modulation technologies are used," said Greg Ennis, vice president of technology at the Wi-Fi Alliance, an association of more than 600 companies that make Wi-Fi devices. "There's tremendous interest in 802.11ax and lot of people and companies are participating."

While older Wi-Fi standards focused on the data capacity of an overall Wi-Fi network connected to multiple users, 802.11ax will explicitly will focus on actual data speeds to each individual station, or device, such as a smartphone or tablet. The IEEE is looking to boost that speed by four times what's possible today.

While the IEEE hasn't said what such a 4x speed would be, 802.11ax could certainly push an individual device connection to beyond 1 Gbps, Ennis said.

Meanwhile, Huawei, which is leading the 802.11ax working group at the IEEE, has done lab tests showing speeds of 10.53 Gbps over an entire Wi-Fi network.

Huawei is using a new radio technology called MIMO-OFDM in its tests. MIMO (multiple input-multiple output) employs many antennas to send many data streams across a network. OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) uses software to encode and decode a signal at either end of a connection.

The word 'orthogonal' refers to a kind of frequency division technology that sends out data streams at right angles to each other, and then captures and decodes the streams at the receiving end. That approach aims to find a frequency pathway that has the least interference, especially in crowded environments like airports or outdoor venues.

"The increased data rate of [802.11ax] technology means you end up not just increasing the speed for individual [users] but also aggregate capacity in the network," Ennis said in an interview.

"That's a significant improvement of performance not only for those in a sweet spot, but for all the users in a particular Wi-Fi hotspot. One interesting requirement of ax is to address issues seen in dense environments like sports stadiums where there are lots of devices and many applications being used. There will be mechanisms in 802.11ax especially geared towards really good service," he added.

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