What is OFDMA, and how it will affect your WiFi?

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The capabilities of infrastructure WiFi reliably precede the capabilities of the devices that use it, including laptops and phones. A previous major standard for WiFi, 802.11ac, included mechanics for Multi-User MIMO, or MU-MIMO. It provided a way to send data to two clients at once by adjusting power on multiple antennas. The signal that reached first client would be canceled for the other, and vice versa; one transmission, two different interpretations.

The access point that can craft a MU-MIMO transmission is a functionally a supercomputer. The transmission is the product of matrix calculations that factor in gains and the constructive/destructive interferences experienced at each client. MU-MIMO is uber-cool, except that there are still very few clients for it (five years later), and the opportunity to employ it comes only once-in-a-while.

Access points you would buy today are based on next standard, 802.11ax or WiFi 6. MU-MIMO is still part of the mix, but there is a much more interesting multi-user capability in the standard, called Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). It works by sharing sub-carriers in a transmission between multiple client devices.

What are sub-carriers? At WiFi’s higher modulation rates, transmitted data are conveyed in multiple, bonded streams which are transmitted at neighboring frequencies. These are reassembled on receipt. Sub-carriers are orthogonal, meaning that the transmission of one does not interfere with the transmission of another. Sub-carriers provide a way to slice WiFI bandwidth into resilient pieces of modest width. Narrower bands can be demodulated and bonded more easily than if the whole channel were taken altogether at once. Fatal interference within a sub-carrier doesn’t necessarily ruin the transmission.

In WiFi 6, the sub-carriers can be shared so that some are destined for this client; some are for that client. This means that in one transmission, an access point can talk to multiple clients. That would be significant enough, but the real performance benefit comes from the elimination of overhead.

To make a single transmission, a modern access point has to perform channel assessment (to see if the air is busy). It has to insert guard bands (dead air) to allow for response turnaround. And, an access point has to contend with overlapped transmission, back-off and retry. The overhead time associated with acquiring the channel can be much greater than the data transmission window. This makes the air-time efficiency of a very fast access point with typical client data be about 10%. That’s low! By combining the data for multiple clients on multiple subcarriers, the efficiency can increase dramatically. The same amount of channel acquisition time can be shared among multiple users. The problem, as ever, is that there are few clients for OFDMA as of yet.

-Kevin Dowd