What is Wi-Fi 6?

Quite simply, Wi-Fi 6 is a new wireless standard. Also called 802.11ax, it is poised to make big waves in network connectivity and user experience improvements. Here’s what you need to know.

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It's all about access

Access to applications. Access to data. Access to services. Your network has the power to reliably deliver access to data and applications to the right users across your organization. But what happens when the demand for mobility continues to increase? New advances in technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, and Wi-Fi 6 are addressing the need for more mobile access. As a result, the way we’ve built networks in the past is changing for businesses of every size.

Wi-Fi 6 is leading the charge

Wi-Fi 6 is opening up new possibilities for wireless. Improved speed, capacity, and control will not only support existing applications with greater performance and improved experiences but also drive new innovations that will change the way people work.

Wi-Fi 6 began its ramp-up in 2019, and although the standard was ratified in September of that year, Samsung launched a Wi-Fi 6 device in February. Cisco worked with Samsung behind the scenes to validate that Wi-Fi 6 actually delivers faster connections, more capacity, and longer battery life.

Figure 1 outlines the adoption of Wi-Fi 6 in 2019 and where it is going.

Figure 1. Wi-Fi 6 progression

In order to take advantage of all of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, you will need a Wi-Fi 6-capable network. This includes both access points and Wi-Fi 6 clients. If it hasn’t already, the market will soon start seeing large numbers of mobile devices that support Wi-Fi 6. Therefore, it is important to prepare your network for the new standard so you will be ready to gain all the benefits that Wi-Fi 6 offers.

What’s the big deal?

Let’s start with two basic facts: we are more dependent on the network than ever before and Wi-Fi 6 gives us more of what we need. It is a more consistent and dependable network connection that will deliver speeds up to four times faster than 802.11ac Wave 2 with four times the capacity. This standard provides a seamless experience for clients and enables next- generation applications such as 4K/8K streaming HD, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) video, and more device and IoT capacity for high-density environments such as university lecture halls, malls, stadiums, and manufacturing facilities.

Wi-Fi 6 also promises reduced latency, greater reliability, and improved power efficiency. With higher performance for mobile devices and the ability to support the IoT on a massive scale (IoT use has been trending upward lately and is now also called “the new mobile”), Wi-Fi 6 will improve experiences across the entire wireless landscape. Wi-Fi 6 also offers improved security, with WPA3 and improved interference mitigation providing a better quality of experience.

The last upgrade to 2.4 GHz was over 10 years ago, so if that’s when you last upgraded your network, it’s probably time to make the move to Wi-Fi 6, simply to catch up with the recent technology changes. According to the 2019 Cisco Visual Networking Index™, there will be higher data rates, with 12.3 billion mobile devices in 2022. IoT will be 50 percent of global connected devices by 2022 (which is why IoT is the “new mobile”). At the same time, there has been a 27.4 percent average increase in security breaches since 2017, so you want to ensure that your protection is up to date.

In addition to these compelling reasons, the following are the more significant benefits you can experience when you move to Wi-Fi 6:

  • Higher capacity: Four is the new magic number. Attach up to four times more devices than under previous standards through features such as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Multiuser Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO). Wi-Fi 6 communicates in parallel with devices, whereas existing standards communicated with only one device at a time. The increased capacity is essential because the volume of mobile data traffic is expected to grow up to four times in just the next four years alone.

  • Improved power efficiency. Using Target Wake Time, client devices that support the Wi-Fi 6 standard may consume two-thirds less power. This means that batteries in products such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and IoT devices can last longer, which makes it the ideal standard.

  • Reduced data latency by optimizing packet scheduling, which is ideal for voice, video, and gaming applications.

  • Greater IoT coverage by bringing the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 to the 2.4-GHz band.

  • Increased speed. Get up to four times the throughput, on average, in congested wireless environments.

  • Improved security. With an extension of security to the infrastructure, the new security features allow for better interference and rogue detection and enhanced threat detection with Cisco® Encrypted Traffic Analytics (ETA). Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA3) is certified with Wi-Fi 6 and provides a greater value proposition than WPA2 for enterprise Wi-Fi networks. It offers enhanced security for open Wi-Fi networks with encryption of unauthenticated traffic, robust password protection against brute-force dictionary attacks, and superior data reliability for sensitive information with 192-bit encryption.

What is OFDMA?

Quite simply, OFDMA is a type of frequency-division multiplexing that is able to use subcarriers more efficiently when it comes to transporting data. Previously, when using Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM), each user got one time slot, or a whole bandwidth channel. Users needed to wait in line before they were able to deliver their packets. As more clients joined, it took longer for packets to be delivered, resulting in lag time and people waiting to transport data.

OFDMA provides a more regular and consistent packet delivery, and users don’t have to wait as long.

Here’s another way to put it. With OFDM, any time a user would request a data packet, it would essentially send out one truck to meet each request of that single user, which isn’t very efficient. OFDMA is different, as one truck is used to deliver the packet to individual users in one round. This way is far more efficient and takes less time. Figure 2 illustrates the difference between OFDM and OFDMA.

Figure 2. Comparison of OFDM and OFDMA

All Cisco Wi-Fi 6 products use OFDMA. As a result, your network will be faster, and most importantly, your users will have a better experience.

Cisco Wi-Fi 6 solutions

Business resiliency

You already have a business continuity plan in place, and during the last few months you may have had to use it. What many businesses have found is that their business continuity plan wasn’t as airtight as they thought, so they had to improvise on the fly. Some of these decisions worked, others not so much.

Cisco Business Resiliency solutions provide a secure, consistent, productive, and trusted experience for your employees, customers, partners, and guests. How? Cisco delivers a complete solution that allows your workforce to safely and securely do their jobs from anywhere. We’re in a time where much of the business world is working remotely, and many of those people will be doing the same even when it’s safe to return to the office.

The Cisco Remote Workforce Network extends corporate policies and security to home offices for a seamless corporate experience that meets the various needs of remote employees and IT administrators. With plug-and-play Cisco wireless access points, remote employees can connect securely to a corporate Wi-Fi or wired network with enterprise-class identity-based policies and seamlessly onboard their wired and wireless corporate-issued and personal devices. They get an optimized cloud application experience via Cisco Application Visibility and Control (AVC), quality of service (QoS), and Cisco Umbrella® DNS layer security to protect them from threats and detect compromised connections.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, machine reasoning

With networks getting so big and complex, it’s difficult to keep up with their growth. Cisco DNA Assurance allows you to reduce the complexities of your network with your network. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and machine reasoning (MR) technologies, your network will be able to get smarter with algorithms and deep learning that compare your network to tens of thousands all over the globe. These insights use MR to apply the cumulative experiences of thousands to solve your network issues.

Cisco has the largest data lake to draw upon when it needs to find solutions. Quick and accurate, the AI/ML/MR reservoir is drawn upon by Cisco DNA Center to assist your IT teams with the correct remediation. The AI/ML capabilities of Cisco DNA Center search through the seemingly endless supply of data to find the right insights to answer your network question. This means that with solutions suggested by the Cisco DNA Center AI, the least experienced on your IT team are fixing the network while your senior team members are tackling the truly tough things.

After an alert is sent to your team, they will see the issues—ranked in terms of priority—followed by the root causes and the steps taken to reach a solution. All of this is done proactively before the issue escalates to a major catastrophe.

To learn more about Cisco DNA Center, see below.

Cisco RF ASICs

Programmable RF Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) are custom-developed to provide you with real-time analytics as well as a platform for future innovation and capabilities. RF ASICs are embedded on mission-critical access points such as the Cisco Catalyst® 9120 and 9130 Series and can perform advanced RF spectrum analysis. They can deliver significant features, such as:

  • Cisco CleanAir® technology to mitigate the impact of wireless interference and protect performance

  • Cisco Wireless Intrusion Prevention System (wIPS) to detect, locate, mitigate, and contain wired and wireless rogues and threats at Layers 1 through 3.

  • Dual-filter Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) detection to avoid interference for optimal performance.

Combined with Cisco DNA Assurance, this gives you radio frequency visibility and intelligence to help you run your networks better. And that’s not all. More new and exciting features are in development.

IoT gateway support

Cisco offers multilingual support and application hosting of IoT protocols to better support IoT service and expansion.

How are Cisco IoT gateways used best? Here are some use cases to get you thinking:

  • Safeguard oil and gas pipeline operations. Increase operational efficiency and decrease downtime for natural gas pipelines and processing plants. Highly secure, rugged Cisco IoT gateways simplify connecting and managing remote gas turbines, diesel engines, and sensors. They also offer faster insights to help you solve problems quickly and limit expensive repairs.

  • Secure financial transactions and manage assets. Reduce the expense of managing thousands of remote ATMs, while enhancing asset and data security and improving the customer experience. Cisco IoT gateways facilitate more secure, reliable cellular connectivity to automate cash management, as well as optimize video surveillance with intelligent data processing at the edge for faster response.

  • Improve safety and regulate traffic. Optimize traffic management with roadside connectivity for traffic signal controllers, motion sensors, video encoders, and cameras. Cisco IoT gateways provide reliable, real-time insights to regulate traffic flow and conditions, detect violations, and improve motorist and pedestrian safety at intersections.

Cisco intelligent capture

Intelligent Capture is a built-in, enhanced issue detection and root-cause-analysis feature available on Cisco Catalyst 9120 and 9130 Series Access Points. It is software that can track more than 240 anomalies and instantaneously review all packets on demand, emulating the onsite network administrator. With this data, administrators can make more informed decisions on their networks. The software “senses” all packets instantaneously and sends the information back to Cisco DNA Center for deep analysis, making it easier to fix the problem. This way, IT can find any issues in record time. Intelligent Capture also provides live and in-service capture of onboarding failures with Packet Capture (PCAP), a spectrum analyzer for analyzing interference sources, and on-demand access point statistics for Wi-Fi troubleshooting.

Cisco DNA Assurance with Active Sensor

One of the challenges of wireless is planning for changing levels of demand. A conference or event can introduce a sudden jump in device density or increase expectations for application performance.

Cisco DNA Assurance with Active Sensor is a compact wireless device that allows you to test real-world client experiences to validate that performance will meet your expectations in any environment.

The Active Sensor can be plugged in anywhere. Other sensor products are often at ceiling level, sometimes providing IT with a less-than-accurate network assessment, since most clients are at eye level. When installed at the level where most mobile devices are apt to be, the Active Sensor allows for a better understanding and a more comprehensive simulation of real clients.

The Active Sensor validates end-user experience and allows for speed tests to check cloud application performance and connectivity. It also provides IP SLA tests for real-time AppX assessment of VoIP applications.

The Aironet® Active Sensor reports data to Cisco DNA Center, where it is used along with assurance data from clients. It comes with multiple powering options, including:

  • Direct AC power plug

  • Power over Ethernet (PoE)

  • Micro USB power

The Aironet Active Sensor makes troubleshooting easier and enhances the context shown in Cisco DNA Assurance. Cisco DNA Assurance puts your data to work; provides you with 360-degree contextual insights across users, devices, and applications; and helps ensure better network performance with real-time and historical data analytics to learn, adapt, and even detect problems before they happen.

Flexible Radio Assignment

Cisco Catalyst 9120 and 9130 Series Access Points offer Flexible Radio Assignment (FRA). FRA is a Cisco innovation designed to provide a better mobile user experience for high-density networks by automatically detecting when the coverage in the 2.4-GHz band is oversaturated. Once the detection is made, FRA intelligently determines which access points should change their dual-band radios from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz. Simply viewed, a single physical access point now acts as two 5-GHz access points, resulting in lower channel utilization and a better user experience. The access point performs this function while still monitoring the network for security threats and RF interference that may affect performance.

FRA has three different modes of operation:

  • Default operating mode, which serves clients on both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands

  • Dual 5-GHz mode, which serves clients on both 5-GHz radios

  • Wireless security monitoring, which scans both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz modes for security threats while also serving 5-GHz clients

FRA isn’t strictly for workplace environments. It can be used in nearly any instance where a large group of people gather. Whether it’s in an educational setting, a hotel lobby, or a hospital, FRA is a boon to any wireless network.

From Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) to IoT devices, the proliferation of wireless items brings a new host of challenges as bandwidth-intense applications grow. FRA rises to these challenges and augments your wireless network to do more without making your job difficult.

Cisco CleanAir technology

Did you know that 80 percent of companies report problems with Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)? Cisco CleanAir technology provides proactive protection against RFI and takes automatic action to avoid current and future interference. In other words, CleanAir technology uses silicon-level intelligence to create a spectrum-aware, self-healing, and self- optimizing wireless network that mitigates the impact of wireless interference and offers performance protection for your network.

What does CleanAir technology do? It:

  • Discovers. CleanAir provides continual systemwide discovery without affecting performance.

  • Decides. It takes automatic action to avoid current and future interference, with full history reporting.

  • Identifies. CleanAir accurately and quickly identifies the source, location, and scope of the interference.

  • Secures. It detects rogue access points and other devices that affect security and customizes alerts.

CleanAir technology correlates sources of interference across the network, supporting intelligent decisions and policies for faster troubleshooting and automatic RFI avoidance. CleanAir technology makes it easy for network administrators to assess service disruptions, receive notices about performance degradation, research resolutions, and quickly act to improve network performance. The CleanAir solution is part of the industry’s most adaptive, reliable, and high-performance wireless network—a network that has the ability to adjust automatically to changes in its environment, without the need for time-intensive or costly human intervention.

Application Hosting

Cisco has removed a speed bump that will make future-proofing and simplifying your IoT deployments easier. With Application Hosting, Cisco has eliminated the overlay network. No longer do you need to install or manage that layer in order to have access to your applications. Third-party applications are built on a an open, standards-based container architecture that makes it easier to create, deploy, and run applications in any environment. Not only that but with Application Hosting, your Catalyst access point has turned your network into a powerful IoT platform. The access point is now the connectivity layer for tags, devices, and more, which cuts down on time and expense.

This system allows you to innovate faster, simplify management, and take control of third-party applications and their data.

Streamlined network

No matter how big or small a business is, its users have the same high expectations for performance and access from the network. But the amount of resources organizations have available to build and support their wireless network can vary dramatically. 

Businesses and organizations without a robust IT staff need a way to keep up with expectations without overloading limited resources. That’s why Cisco’s latest generation of solutions for wireless access was built specifically to be easy to deploy and manage, making improved wireless access available to organizations with all levels of support.

Are you building or modernizing your network access? Cisco has two options to help: embedded controller deployments and standalone wireless controller deployments.

Embedded controller deployments

Cisco embedded deployments give you a variety of different ways to manage your wireless network, depending on what works best for your organization and your available resources. Options include wireless controllers embedded on access points or in access switches.

Standalone wireless controller deployments 

To take advantage of the additional features and the most reliable and secure wireless controllers, upgrade with Cisco Catalyst® wireless controllers.

You’ll get always-on controllers with high availability and support for seamless software updates, with hot patching and compatibility with the new Cisco Catalyst 9100 Access Points which support Wi-Fi 6. 

Easy-to-deploy solutions

Software licensing

Cisco Wi-Fi 6 wireless products require Cisco DNA software subscription licenses. These licenses are required for connecting any access points to the Catalyst 9800 Series Controllers, Cisco DNA Center (on-premises), or Cisco DNA Spaces.

Cisco DNA software subscriptions are available in three tiers: Cisco DNA Essentials, Cisco DNA Advantage, and Cisco DNA Premier.

The licenses are purchased per access point and include embedded software support. Depending on the subscription tier chosen, a customer will get a perpetual stack along with their subscription: Network Essentials or Network Advantage.

This consists of a feature stack that does not expire even if the subscription lapses. However, support for the software will lapse with the subscription.

Note that Network Essentials and Network Advantage cannot be purchased as a standalone license, and come as part of the Cisco DNA software subscription.

Cisco Network Essentials and Network Advantage licenses enable wireless fundamentals such as 802.1X authentication, QoS, Plug and Play (PnP), telemetry and visibility, single sign-on (SSO), and security controls. These licenses are perpetual.

Cisco DNA software subscription licenses, mandatory at the time of hardware purchase, unlock Cisco DNA Center functionality, enabling controller-based software-defined automation and assurance in your network. The Cisco DNA Center controller is required to activate the Cisco DNA software capabilities. These term licenses are available in 3-, 5-, or 7-year subscriptions. When the Cisco DNA software subscription term expires, the Cisco DNA Center capabilities expire, but the perpetual Cisco Network Essentials or Network Advantage features remain in effect.

Figures 9 through 11 provide detailed information on the capabilities provided in the different licensing tiers of Cisco DNA subscription software.

Figure 9. Details of the Cisco DNA Essentials software license for wireless

Cisco DNA Essentials subscription software, available in 3-, 5-, and 7-year terms, includes:

  • Basic automation with PnP application, network site design, and device provisioning

  • Element management with Software and Image Management (SWIM), discovery, network topology, and AVC

  • Basic assurance with a health dashboard, an AP floor and coverage map, and predefined reports

  • Basic security and telemetry, including Flexible NetFlow

Cisco Network Essentials perpetual software includes:

  • Essential wireless capabilities for Wi-Fi 6 authentication, guest access, device onboarding, infrastructure and client IPv6, ACLs, QoS, VideoStream, smart defaults, Radio Resource Management (RRM), Spectrum Intelligence, BLE, USB, Cisco TrustSec®, SGT Exchange Protocol (SXP), AP and client SSO, dynamic QoS, analytics, ADP, OpenDNS, mDNS, IPsec, and rogue management and detection. Essential wireless capabilities for Wi-Fi 6 authentication, guest access, device onboarding, infra and client IPv6, ACLs, QoS, videostream, smart defaults, RRM, spectrum intelligence, BLE, USB, Cisco TrustSec, SXP, AP and client SSO, dynamic QoS, analytics, ADP, OpenDNS, mDNS, IPsec, rogue management and detection

  • Optimized RF, which includes Flexible Radio Assignment (FRA), ClientLink, Cisco CleanAir Advanced, NG-HDX, and predictive and proactive RRM

  • DevOps integration, which includes PnP agent, NETCONF, and YANG data models

  • IoT optimized refers to identity PSK and enhanced device profilers

  • Telemetry and visibility include model-driven telemetry

Figure 10. Details of the Cisco DNA Advantage software license for wireless

Cisco DNA Advantage subscription software, available in 3-, 5-, and 7-year terms, includes:

  • Advanced automation with SD-Access, location PnP, and automated Identify Services Engine (ISE) integration for guest and third-party API integration

  • Enhanced security and IoT includes Encrypted Traffic Analytics (ETA)

  • Policy-based workflows include EasyQoS configuring, and monitoring and policy-based automation

  • Assurance and analytics includes guided remediation, Apple iOS insights, proactive insight detection such as Aironet Active Sensor tests, Intelligent Capture, client location heatmaps, spectrum analyzer and application performance reports, and element management that shows patch lifecycle management

Cisco Network Advantage perpetual software includes:

  • High availability and resiliency with ISSU process restart, rolling AP upgrades, CLI patching, and AP service/device pack

  • Flexible network segmentation includes VXLAN

Figure 11. Details of the Cisco DNA Premier software license for wireless

Cisco DNA Premier subscription software, available in 3-, 5-, and 7-year terms, includes everything offered in the Cisco DNA Advantage license plus the ISE Base and ISE Plus license capabilities as well as Cisco DNA Spaces Extend in an easy-to-purchase single SKU. Cisco Network Advantage perpetual software includes:

  • High availability and resiliency with ISSU process restart, rolling AP upgrades, CLI patching, and AP service/device pack

  • Flexible network segmentation, including VXLAN

Cisco Smart Licensing

Cisco DNA Software subscription licenses are smart licenses. Cisco Smart Licensing is a flexible software licensing model that simplifies the way you activate and manage licenses across your organization.

The Smart Licensing model makes it easier for you to procure, deploy, and manage your Cisco software licenses.

Smart Licensing helps answer two questions:

  • What licenses have been purchased from Cisco?
  • What licenses are being used?

Smart Licensing works differently from older or classic licenses.

With older or classic licenses:

  • Customers had a limited view, as there was no way to keep track of all of the software licenses that they own.
  • Each device had to be manually registered using a license key.
  • Licenses were tied to a specific device, and if the device was no longer in use, neither was the license.
To use Smart Licensing, you must first set up a Smart Account. To learn more, visit cisco.com/go/smartlicensing.


As we approach the deployment of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, get ready to experience a sudden leap in wireless networking capabilities. Cisco is making it easy to refresh your wireless infrastructure to take advantage of everything Wi-Fi 6 has to offer and to go beyond the standards with additional capabilities.

Learn more about Cisco Wi-Fi 6 solutions and products and get started today.

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