The Wi-Fi 6 standard has officially launched today and the Wi-Fi Alliance is now handing out Wi-Fi 6 certifications to manufacturers with qualifying hardware. We’ll start seeing devices and equipment with Wi-Fi 6 support hitting the market in the near future.
Wi-Fi 6 has several features that make it advantageous compared with 802.11ac (aka Wi-Fi 5). First, for those of you who may not remember where this “Wi-Fi 6” moniker came from in the first place: The Wi-Fi Alliance has defined certain specific Wi-Fi levels (4, 5, and 6) as corresponding to certain levels of technology. Wi-Fi 4 is 802.11n, Wi-Fi 5 is 802.11ac, and Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax.
802.11ax is designed to pack far more Wi-Fi signals into the same crowded space — specifically, your home/business/local NFL stadium. The standard shines in dense deployments, with throughput up to 4x higher than 802.11ac, even though nominal data rates have only improved by 37 percent, best-case. 802.11ax uses OFDMA (Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) to subdivide spectrum for allocation to many users simultaneously (802.11ac lacked this feature). It can use both multi-user MIMO and OFDMA simultaneously, and it has features that allow for more efficient spectrum-sharing and re-use between devices.
According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, all of these improvements are necessary to support the dense deployments of current homes. In the early days of Wi-Fi, the only enabled device might be a laptop or two. Today, a household might have 3-5 computers, 3-5 phones, a smart TV, and a smart speaker. Device manufacturers, however, have to plan for a future in which one router might be asked to juggle connections from 3-5 computers, 3-5 phones, 2-4 smart TVs, 4-6 smart speakers, and 20-30 various IoT devices and appliances deployed throughout the house. Stack up that many products, and you’ll start running into local interference from your own network, to say nothing of anything your neighbor might deploy.
New Security Standards of Uncertain Value
The other major feature being introduced with Wi-Fi 6 is WPA3. Unfortunately, WPA3 has already been confirmed to suffer from some of the same security flaws that WPA2 had. Earlier this year, security researchers published results demonstrating these vulnerabilities and called the development approach used to certify WPA3 fundamentally flawed. “In light of our presented attacks, we believe that WPA3 does not meet the standards of a modern security protocol,” the authors’ wrote. “Moreover, we believe that our attacks could have been avoided if the Wi-Fi Alliance created the WPA3 certification in a more open manner.”
There are multiple ways to force WPA3 into a downgraded mode that exposes network information in an unsafe manner, and the standard, as a whole, does not seem to be as strong as either WPA2 or WPA were perceived to be when they finally deployed. There’s evidence that it may be possible to patch WPA3 devices in some cases, and we’re not trying to imply that there are no security improvements in WPA3 versus WPA2 that haven’t been compromised, but the situation does not seem to be as strong as in previous product life cycles.
In all honesty, this is not necessarily surprising. A major review of device firmware over the past 15 years conducted back in August found essentially zero security improvements in that time period. According to Sarah Zatko, the chief scientist at the Cyber Independent Testing Lab (CITL), “Nobody is trying. We found no consistency in a vendor or product line doing better or showing improvement. There was no evidence that anybody is making a concerted effort to address the safety hygiene of their products.”
In theory, WPA3 should be a major selling point for a product like this, but the overarching security issues around these devices make it clear that truly securing them is of secondary importance to their various designers. It is perhaps unsurprising that WPA3 would have issues as well.
Early devices that support Wi-Fi 6 include the Galaxy Note 10, the Galaxy S10, and all three of Apple’s just-announced iPhones. Most, if not all, flagship devices will likely include support from this point forward.