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Wi-Fi 6 gets an upgrade with Release 2, promising better upload performance

The new release adds optional features that Wi-Fi 6 device developers can take advantage of, including multi-user uploads and better power efficiency.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants you to look for the Wi-Fi 6 logo.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

2019 saw the debut of 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, the newest and fastest version of the Wi-Fi standard. Now, three years later, that standard is getting upgraded to support more robust uploads and better power efficiency, which is key for battery-powered Wi-Fi devices, particularly in IoT applications.

Called Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 and announced this week during CES 2022, the upgrade builds upon the foundation set by the original release of Wi-Fi 6 by adding in new features that developers can choose to take advantage of. The new features are supported across all Wi-Fi bands -- 2.4, 5 and the 6GHz band that comes with Wi-Fi 6E -- and you can expect those features to start making their way into new Wi-Fi devices released later this year. According to a spokesperson for the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group that announced the release, some devices already on the market might be equipped to take advantage of them, as well.

"In those cases, we would likely expect that they would go through the testing to make sure that those capabilities are functioning," says Kevin Robinson, Wi-Fi Alliance senior vice-president of marketing, adding that in other cases, devices might be able to implement Release 2 features with a simple firmware update. "It's also certainly possible that devices that do not have the capabilities at all could add these capabilities in. But that could vary from vendor to vendor."

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The key upgrade with the release addresses upload traffic, which has risen steadily over the past few years as part of a larger surge in residential and commercial internet usage.

"We're seeing a significant shift in uplink versus downlink traffic," Robinson explains. "Some number of years ago, you were seeing ratios in the 10:1 range, meaning that you were downloading 10 bits of data for every 1 bit that you were uploading or sending out over your broadband connection. One major provider has already indicated that the ratio has changed to around 6:1, and they're expecting that ultimately, we'll get to a 2:1 ratio."

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Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 aims to meet that growing demand for sturdy uploads with uplink MU-MIMO, which essentially allows network devices to upload data at the same time on different streams within your network. It's a natural extension of the downlink MU-MIMO that's already a part of Wi-Fi 6, Robinson says, and one that should help the incoming generation of Wi-Fi devices adapt to the pandemic-borne surge in home network traffic, especially as people continue working and socializing online.

On the efficiency front, Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 augments the original Wi-Fi 6 release with the addition of features like broadcast target wake time, extended sleep time, and dynamic multi-user spatial multiplexing power save, all of which are designed to help battery-powered Wi-Fi devices conserve power as they connect with an access point. That could help the makers of smart home sensors, cameras and other wireless gadgets notch better battery life.

Minor, nongenerational updates to the standard aren't uncommon in the history of Wi-Fi. 802.11ac, now known as Wi-Fi 5, which saw a similar second release in the years after its debut. There have also been a number of niche applications of the standard in recent years to meet different networking challenges.

"As with previous generations, the second release brings in optional capabilities or capabilities that are more targeted towards specific use cases," Robinson says, "whereas many of the foundational capabilities obviously get prioritized in the first release."