Complementing WiFi 6 technologies with DPI intelligence to make the best of both worlds

Sebastian Müller portrait

by Sebastian Müller
published on: 09.03.2021

WiFi has become such a consistent part of our lives that it is easy to forget that the technology responsible for linking up every fixed or mobile device connected to the Internet is still evolving rapidly. While in the year 2000, 6.5 % of the world’s population had an internet connection, that share had risen to 28.7 % by 2010 and surpassed 50 % in 2018.[1] The impact of these numbers on the WiFi market’s growth is phenomenal. From an already sizeable market of USD 8.76 billion in 2019, the global WiFi market is expected to grow to a whopping $31.3 billion by 2027[2]. This is hardly surprising. WiFi is everywhere, from homes to businesses, from public to private hotspots, from shops to airplanes.

In particular, the evolution of WiFi technology and solutions has created various expanded market segments and use cases. The latest, most advanced evolution of WiFi is WiFi 6, better known as IEEE 802.11ax WiFi, which builds on the current 802.11ac WiFi (WiFi 5) standard.

What’s new in WiFi 6

The WiFi 6 network comes with a different set of features than its predecessor. This affects all major network elements – gateways, access points, repeaters, routers and end-user computing devices. The first difference is that WiFi 6 uses orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) as opposed to orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), which allows a single broadcast to be split efficiently between multiple devices. Second, it also makes use of multiple-use, multiple-input, multiple-output (MU-MIMO) antennas that allow a single router to connect to multiple devices at once: eight for WiFi 6 compared to four for WiFi 5.[3]

These new features enhance WiFi networks in several ways. The speed offered by a WiFi 6 router, for example, can be split between multiple devices. In a world where smart devices have already outnumbered humans, this significantly influences the effective speed and quality of a single internet access. WiFi 5 routers are limited in how many devices can be connected to them, and the more devices they supply, the slower the network becomes. WiFi 6 routers can communicate with more devices at once and can divide a single broadcast between different devices, thereby both increasing the speed and decreasing the latency throughout a network.

As bandwidth-intensive technologies such as 4K/8K HD streaming, virtual and augmented reality develop, this advancement is set to prove invaluable.

Security also gets a boost with WiFi 6. While the WPA3 security protocol, which makes it hard for intruders to repeatedly guess security keys, was launched in 2018, it was optional for WiFi 5 devices and routers. However, for WiFi 6 certification, WPA3 is mandated.

In terms of managing network capacities, WiFi 6 provides an added advantage. It allows devices to schedule automatic check-ins with the router, decongesting the network for active users.

Making the best of both worlds

These new capabilities greatly enhance today’s WLAN networks as they boost speed, latency and signal strength. However, to truly maximize their potential and deliver both increased efficiency and cost savings, deep network intelligence becomes necessary. This is where deep packet inspection (DPI) becomes an essential complement to WiFi 6.

An advanced DPI engine such as R&S®PACE 2 goes beyond reading a packet’s source and destination information by examining its actual content using metadata extraction, pattern matching, classification, statistical analysis and heuristics. It can identify applications as well as their attributes and transmission protocols. It also identifies application speeds, latencies and throughputs, for example the speed of Salesforce or Google Docs. Additionally, it identifies session data, encrypted traffic and suspicious traffic patterns, all in real time. Using deep learning and machine learning, data provided by DPI can be used to predict network behavior and usage, allowing network operators to fine-tune the management of any IP network, including WiFi networks.

This dovetails effectively with the prospects of WiFi 6. As WiFi 6 allows intercommunication between devices on a network, it can be useful for the network operator to have information on exactly which devices are transmitting what information, when they are doing so, and to know this as it happens. That is precisely what DPI enables. Our own OEM DPI engine R&S®PACE 2 developed for networking solutions, for example, can be deployed in wireless access points (WAPs) and routers to provide real-time visibility into network traffic. R&S®PACE 2 embedded into WAPs provides detailed metrics covering key traffic attributes related to the device, user, session, application and network links, helping WLAN operators manage device connections, identify bandwidth needs, implement access control to restricted files as well as content blocking based on organization data usage policies. The same information is also useful for deciding on the optimal number of WAPs required, where to place them and how much capacity is needed at different locations.

Weed out the bad, cultivate the good

R&S®PACE 2 can also enhance the security standards of WiFi 6. Like the open seas where both legitimate maritime traffic and pirates sail, WiFi networks attract both legitimate agents as well as threat actors with malicious intention. Malware, man-in-the-middle, denial-of-service and other kinds of attacks take place through WiFi. While WiFi 6 notably strengthens password security, it does not solve all problems. This is where R&S®PACE 2 comes in, either as an embedded component in a security tool such as an IDS or a firewall, or as, e.g., a WAP enhancement. It can extract deeper metrics on traffic flows, providing network functions with real-time intelligence that allows them to detect and filter out malicious traffic and subsequently block, redirect or quarantine the affected packets.

Similarly, network performance data provided by DPI-enhanced WAPs can be used to improve user experience on WiFi networks, especially on premium WiFi services, corporate WiFi networks and operator hotspots. Performance loss throughout the network, which can arise due to network architecture, peak-hour congestion, cyber-attacks, capacity issues and bandwidth abuse, can be pinned down before critical applications become impaired, thereby preventing potential productivity losses, downtimes and dissatisfaction among paying customers.

As WiFi 6 aids the expansion of hotspots and Internet in public transportation and commercial areas, DPI-powered WAPs can help service providers create value for themselves and their users. Packet filtering and classification that inspects network traffic closely can recognize patterns and correlations between users, applications, content and user behavior. This can be leveraged to create service classes that are monetized through usage-based, content-specific or premium passes. Such packages could offer featured WiFi 6 capabilities for an added fee. This could take the form of priority spots in WiFi 6 sub-channels if bandwidth starts to get congested, or more frequent check-ins into the network – features that are made possible through the capabilities of WiFi 6.

WiFi from the cloud

The advancements brought about by WiFi 6 are further promoted by cloud-based deployments where the network is configured, run and managed from the cloud. With DPI, real-time updates can be delivered from one cloud to another, enabling seamless control of the network from any place. This enhances cyber-security management, as updates on the latest attack patterns are made available to every network element involved in routing and managing traffic.

All in all, WiFi 6 provides the technical possibilities for enhancing the robustness, speed and security of ubiquitously networked computing. DPI, in turn, improves the data foundation on which the technical capabilities of WiFi 6 are used. WiFi 6 and DPI are both useful on their own, but together, they function as complements that provide a real boost to any WLAN data network.

Download our whitepaper on DPI for wireless access points and find out how DPI creates an intelligent network infrastructure offering opportunities to monetize new data services, improve quality of experience (QoE), strengthen network security measures and more.


[1] ‘Individuals using the Internet (% of population)’ - World Bank - 2021 - https://data.worldbank.org/ind...

[2] Wi-Fi Market By Component (Solutions And Services), Density (High-Density Wi-Fi And Enterprise-Class Wi-Fi), End-Use (Education, Transportation, Government, Manufacturing, Healthcare, Retail, Hospitality, Sports And Leisure, And Others), And Region, Forecasts To 2027 - Reports and Data - 2020 - https://www.reportsanddata.com...

[3] Wi-Fi 6 Explained: The Next Generation of Wi-Fi - TechSpot - 2020 - https://www.techspot.com/artic...

    Sebastian Müller portrait

    Sebastian Müller

    Contact me on LinkedIn

    Sebastian is a passionate DPI thought leader guiding a cross-functional team to build the networks of the future with leading traffic analytics capabilities. He has over ten years of dedicated experience in the telecom and cybersecurity domain, providing him with deep understanding of market requirements and customer needs. When he’s not at work, you can either find him on his road bike or hiking in the mountains.

    Email: Seb.Mueller@rohde-schwarz.com

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