Qualcomm and 11ax: Cure for the Internet Rush Hour?


The proliferation of connected devices combined with exploding demand for video streaming and other real-time data types are straining Wi-Fi deployments across the globe during the Internet Rush Hour: peak usage times when the most people are on the network at the same time. It is especially challenging to deliver during the Internet Rush Hour in congested areas – sites like sports stadiums and concert venues, and high-rise apartment complexes and enterprise deployments.

In fact, there may not be a more taxing scenario to test the mettle of Wi-Fi installations than at stadiums during what Mike Leibovitz calls “pinnacle events” – bucket-list affairs like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics. Leibovitz should know. He is the Director of Product Strategy at Extreme Networks, the official Wi-Fi provider for the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Record
During Super Bowl LI in Houston earlier this month, more than 35,000 fans combined to set a new record with their smartphones, transferring a total 11.8TB of data via W-Fi. During peak demand, more than 27,000 fans pounded the Wi-Fi network at once.

“We absolutely look at the Super Bowl as bleeding edge,” he said. “There’s lots of people. Lots of consumption. Lots of data.”

For those like Leibovitz, who deploy Wi-Fi in high-traffic sites, relief is in sight, courtesy cellular pioneer Qualcomm. The company today announced a completely new approach to the evolution of Wi-Fi with a pair of chipsets that support 802.11ax. The emerging industry standard borrows cellular-industry advances to help Wi-Fi serve much more data to many more devices. The two chipsets – the IPQ8074 for routers and the QCA6290 for laptops, smartphones, tablets and other client devices – together make up the first end-to-end offering announced for the developing Wi-Fi standard.

Wi-Fi wasn’t conceived to handle today’s network demands. In the early days, it was mostly used to connect a single device – usually a laptop – to the internet. Network architects didn’t have to worry about how to handle large numbers of devices all contending for access. And they didn’t have to worry about minor delays and disruptions because there was so little real-time data like streaming music and video. So developers concentrated on making the connection faster and extending the range.

Now, finally, the focus of Wi-Fi development is shifting from optimizing bandwidth – connection speeds to an individual device – to maximizing capacity. That is, ensuring that all devices on crowded networks get the bandwidth they need. Even during the Internet Rush Hour.

Qualcomm has been a leader in moving Wi-Fi development in this new direction. The company was the first to offer multi-user MIMO, which multiplies the number of devices the network can talk to concurrently, and Wi-Fi SON self-management features.

The 802.11ax spec brings a host of new features, all aimed at improving capacity and network management. These include:

  • 8×8 MU-MIMO, which doubles the number of concurrent devices from the 4×4 MU-MIMO in 802.11ac, the previous generation,
  • Adds OFDMA, a small-packet feature from cellular that enables the network to handle up to 37 simultaneous data streams, and
  • Scheduling features, which are commonplace methods of controlling traffic on cellular networks but new to Wi-Fi

Although commercial deployments will benefit most from 802.11ax, even consumers who need just a single router in a small apartment will notice performance improvements. That’s because scheduling and other intelligence features will help to focus only on the home network traffic and block out neighbors’ Wi-Fi.

Leibovitz expects strong demand for 802.11ax from hospitals and other healthcare facilities. “In healthcare, you have clinicians and patients and family guests on the network. So you have life-critical systems that are sharing airtime with patients in bed watching Netflix.”

And, of course, pinnacle events at stadiums also stand to benefit greatly. You know, like the Super Bowl.

“Frankly, no one cares about the other 79,000 people,” Leibovitz said. “We all have the expectation that it’s just going to work.”