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 a basic fact: we are more dependent on the network than ever before and Wi-Fi 6 gives you more of what you 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 Internet of Things (IoT) on a massive scale (IoT use has been trending upwards 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 with better QoE.

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 Cisco 2019 Virtual Networking Index (VNI), 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 (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, following are 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 only "one 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 (TWT), 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. Gain an estimated increase of up to four times in average throughput 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). 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 OFDM, each user got one time slot, or a whole bandwidth channel. Each user needed to wait in line before they were able to deliver their packet. As more clients join, 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 each 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

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 like the Cisco Catalyst® 9120 and 9130 Series Access Points 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 PCAPs, 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 on application performance. Cisco DNA Assurance with Active Sensor is a compact wireless device that allows you to test real-world client experiences to validate 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 app performance and connectivity. It also provides IP SLA tests for real-time AppX assessment for 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 both offer Flexible Radio Assignment. 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 over-saturated. Once the detection is made, Flexible Radio Assignment intelligently determines which access points should change its dual band radio 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.

Flexible Radio Assignment 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

Flexible Radio Assignment 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, Flexible Radio Assignment 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. Flexible Radio Assignment 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 RF interference 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.

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 and Smart Licensing

Cisco Wi-Fi 6 wireless products require mandatory Smart Licensing. This is a program that provides ease of use for Cisco software license management, consumption, and tracking.

There are two levels of software licensing managed through Smart Licensing:

  • Hardware operating system software licenses: These are perpetual licenses and are referred to as Cisco Network Essentials and Cisco Network Advantage licenses. These licenses are purchased for access points and wireless controllers.

  • Cisco DNA software licenses: These are term-based licenses and are referred to as Cisco DNA Essentials, Cisco DNA Advantage, and Cisco DNA Premier licenses. These licenses are purchased for access points but are not required for wireless controllers.

Cisco Network Essentials and Network Advantage licenses enable wireless fundamentals such as 802.1X authentication, quality of service (QoS), Plug and Play (PnP), telemetry and visibility, stateful switchover (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 8 through 11 provide detailed information on the capabilities provided in the different licensing tiers of Cisco DNA subscription software.

Figure 8. Overview of the three Cisco DNA software licensing tiers for wireless

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 application visibility and control (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, 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 includes PnP agent, NETCONF, 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 software-defined-access (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 in-service software upgrade (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 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 includes VXLAN