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The Why in Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi is a stalwart of high-speed consumer connectivity. But the new Wi-Fi 6 version brings technical changes that see the wireless protocol offer greater support for IoT networks.

The smart home is in transition. Not so long ago, short- range wireless protocols such as Bluetooth LE, Thread and Zigbee—plus a slew of proprietary technologies—were slugging it out for dominance. But no single tech looked like winning the war of attrition because each had its strengths and weaknesses. For example, while Bluetooth LE offered smartphone interoperability, Thread promised streamlined Cloud-connectivity and Zigbee looked like the most mature option for mesh networking.

wifiToday the protagonists have called a truce among a growing realization that each can play a role in the burgeoning smart home sector. For example, the recently launched Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), formerly the Zigbee Alliance, boasts 350 member companies, including Nordic Semiconductor, all working together to harmonize IoT wireless standards.

This spirit of cooperation—fostered in part by the key role the IoT has played in battling the COVID-19 pandemic— makes it a good time for an IoT-friendly version of Wi-Fi to enter the game. Based on versions that were designed for high-bandwidth consumer applications and featuring a stack with baked-in Internet Protocol (IP), this new version of the wireless standard includes under-the-hood enhancements which promise to add much to the smart- home and -industry product developer’s armoury.


Look far enough back into Wi-Fi’s past and you’ll see a story that combines a 1970s Hawaiian UHF radio network, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) 1985 decision to release the 2.4 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use, wireless cashier systems and an Australian project observing atomic particlesized exploding black holes.

These disparate events fed into the formation of an Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) standards committee tasked with defining the physical layer (PHY) and media access control (MAC) for a WLAN or ‘wireless Ethernet’. The first version of the specification, IEEE 802.11-1997, arrived in June 1997 and later versions used other frequencies, enhanced throughput and coexistence, and added IP layers to the PHY and MAC.

Fast forward to today and while Wi-Fi generally works satisfactorily, its ubiquity is putting pressure on networks which are in turn beginning to creak at the seams. Frustratingly slow Wi-Fi service in public places such as malls and libraries is now commonplace. IEEE802.11ax, marketed as ‘Wi-Fi 6’ and approved earlier this year, is touted as the solution; it is specifically designed to meet the requirements of so-called dense deployments.

Wi-Fi 6 combines enhancements to both throughput and spectral efficiency which should, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade organization charged with promoting the technology: “Enable good performance in even the most demanding Wi-Fi environments.” These improvements provide support for many more devices from a single access point (AP) and will not only be a boon for YouTube and Netflix fans looking for a streaming fix in a public place but also for smart-home, -building or -factory owners looking to employ Wi-Fi 6 powered IoT sensors.

Wi-Fi 6’s throughput and greater spectral efficiency not only enables faster response from connected devices but also allows for more network connections while still maintaining good service. While the previous version, ‘Wi- Fi 5’, could simultaneously support up to 250 devices from a single AP, Wi-Fi 6 boosts that support to 1024 devices.

Further improving Wi-Fi 6’s suitability for smart-home and -industry applications is the addition of individual target wake time (TWT), a significant evolution over power-saving efforts of prior generations of Wi-Fi. Using TWT, client devices negotiate wake-up times with APs, so they do not need to stay awake to maintain the wireless connection. The result is that the AP is able to aggregate large groups of client requests into fewer triggered transmit opportunities. The benefits are more efficient, contention-free channel access and significant client device power savings. These are considerable, up to 80 percent in likefor-like applications, making IoT devices with long battery lifetimes more practical.

Finally, Wi-Fi 6 also brings improved security. The technology benefits from Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) 3 (although this was rolled-out separately to Wi-Fi 6) which uses the Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) protocol in place of the Pre-Shared Key (PSK) protocol common to older WPA2 protection. SAE boasts enhanced encryption technology compared with PSK.


cellularWhile Bluetooth LE, Thread, and Zigbee are leading short-range options for IoT sensor networks, cellular IoT and LoRaWAN offer practical options for the LPWANs needed to shift that sensor network data over much longer distances to the Cloud. Wi-Fi 6 adds something more. “Wi-Fi 6 offers IoT sensors direct connection to the Cloud through routers without having to pay additional data subscriptions,” explains Karl Torvmark, a Technical Product Manager with Nordic Semiconductor. “Moreover, better use of the RF spectrum makes Wi-Fi 6 powered IoT networks practical. Previous versions of the technology struggled to cope with more than a few sensors. “The technology’s higher throughput [compared to other short-range wireless tech] enables new use-cases like wireless security cameras and high-quality video doorbells. The additional throughput can also be used to complement Bluetooth to transfer large amounts of data – such as music streaming in wearables,” adds Torvmark.

For its part, the CSA is backing Wi-Fi 6 as a foundation technology of the smart home; Matter, the alliance’s unified IP-based connectivity protocol, is designed to run on the protocol (and older versions of Wi-Fi) – as well as on other mature networking technologies such as Ethernet and Thread (and for ease of commissioning, Bluetooth LE). The adoption of Matter will see a new type of device called a “Thread border router” which will be used to connect Thread/Matter devices using IEEE 802.15.4 as the wireless transport to the Wi-Fi network. (A Thread border router can also operate as a bridge from Thread networks to other networks such as Ethernet and LTE. Such a router won’t be needed if the IoT device is connecting using just Matter over Wi-Fi.

Nordic Semiconductor too sees Wi-Fi 6 as a key enabler for the IoT. The company acquired U.K.-based Imagination Technologies’ Wi-Fi development team and associated IP tech assets at the end of 2020.

“As the global leader in Bluetooth wireless technology and the emerging leader in cellular wireless IoT, there has been a gap [in our product range] which our customers have been asking us to fill,” says SveinEgil Nielsen, Nordic’s CTO. “Short-range radio technologies are ideal for the IoT’s sensor mesh networks, while cellular IoT is the answer for transmitting that sensor data to the Cloud. Wi-Fi 6 adds a low power, fast, secure and scalable version of the IP interoperable technology that can leverage routers to send information to the Cloud.

“We’ve now addressed the need for Wi-Fi with the acquisition of Imagination. We will be able to add Wi-Fi functionality to future generations of Nordic products,” concludes Nielsen.

This article is republished from Nordic Semiconductor’s Wireless Quarter with permission. Wireless-Quarter


BiS Team

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