What’s around the corner for wi-fi connectivity?

There are a couple of new protocols in the works that will affect wi-fi connections for the good, in the near future.
30 November 2018

Ready for WPA3? Source: Shutterstock

Back in January this year, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced WPA3 as a replacement for WPA2, the security protocol via which many wireless internet connections are made.

The next generation of wi-fi access points, therefore, should begin to start shipping with WPA3 standards, plus, in time, wi-fi devices should start communicating using 802.11ax protocols.

Before this article descends into jargon, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider what some of these technologies mean to end-users; in short, what will make the next generation of wi-fi safer, faster, and more reliable.

To firstly consider safety. It’s fairly easy to hack today’s ‘secure’ wi-fi networks. All that’s required is:

• A few easily-downloadable software tools.
• Some word and files containing common password choices; again, easily-downloadable.
• A modicum of technical nous, specifically command line experience in possible Windows PowerShell or, definitely, Linux command line.

With those assets at hand, your organization’s network can be joined by malicious actors (or the merely curious), and its contents explored.

WPA3 hopes to remove many of the features of today’s inherently insecure wi-fi protection methods, with higher level, more granular encryption and less susceptible secure key exchange methods.

Clearly, the higher levels of protection are dependent on wi-fi access points being upgraded, and all hardware using them similarly enabled with the ability to ‘speak’ the new protocols.

But putting aside security concerns, for now, the next generation of communication protocols being used by wi-fi devices will be known as 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6.

Presently Wi-Fi 6 is due to be ratified in 2019, and businesses should then start to see wireless access points becoming commonplace on the market. Devices already exist for early adopters (from Netgear) but it’ll be difficult for the new tech to even get into the test lab with 802.11ax clients (wi-fi cards, phones, tablets and so on) not yet available.

Wi-Fi 6 uses both 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies and is backward-compatible with 802.11ac/a/b/g/n devices; so far, so good. Its headline PHY is around 500Mbps, but this shouldn’t be confused with the speed at which data can be interchanged. Even in exceptionally perfect conditions, probably only 60-70 percent of that can be achieved – and the connection will get slower the further away the client is from the access point.

What will make a difference in any area covered by wi-fi over and above what’s offered by the present 802.11ac standard (433 Mbps PHY) is the underlying technology that hopes to solve some of the problems that plague internet connections made over wi-fi at present.

Many of the issues flagged up by cries of “the wi-fi’s slow”, or worse, stem from many clients attempting to connect to the same wi-fi access point, with the transmissions and reception of data marred by interference from other clients. The more clients attempting to connect, the worse the quality of service.

In tower blocks like shared office spaces— or in busy apartment blocks— different wi-fi networks also interfere with one another, causing dropped packets and each client attempting to communicate at different times from their competitors.

Not only will complex tech with opaque names like bi-directional MU-MIMO and TWT (target wake time) allow more devices to connect without interfering with one another, but the latter in particular should allow battery-powered devices that use 802.11ax draw less power– and therefore stay powered longer.

For readers with a distinctly technical bent, we would advise a look at Jim Salter’s excellent article on Ars Technica; Jim is more capable than most in explaining the minutiae of the tech.

It will take a while, starting next year, for the new technologies to begin to appear in the suppliers’ inventories, and from there to end up as permanent installs in production environments. But as 5G pushes the comms envelope in the cellular space, it’ll be 802.11ax and WPA3 that encapsulate wi-fi traffic for the next few years.