Wi-Fi 6: Is It Indeed That Much Faster?

Eventually, WiFi will become faster. That’s great news: faster internet is always in demand, especially as we consume more apps, games, and videos with our phones and laptops.

However, the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6, isn’t just a simple speed boost. Its influence will be more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time.

This is less of a one-time speed increase and more of a future-oriented upgrade to ensure our speeds don’t stall some time in the future. There’s a good chance your next phone or laptop will have Wi-Fi 6. Here’s what to expect once it arrives.

 

WHAT IS WI-FI 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi. As far as connecting you to the internet goes, it will do the same thing, but with a bunch of additional technologies to make that happen more efficiently, thus speeding up connections.

 

HOW FAST IS IT?

The short answer is 9.6 Gbps. That’s an increase from Wi-Fi 5’s 3.5 Gbps.

In reality, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever achieve either of those speeds in real-world Wi-Fi use. It’s not clear that you would need those speeds even if you could reach them. In the US, the typical download speed is 72 Mbps, or less than 1 percent of the theoretical maximum speed.

The fact that Wi-Fi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still important. The 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to just one computer. It can  distributes across a whole network of devices. Each device will have a greater potential speed.

 

WI-FI 6 IS NOT ABOUT TOP SPEEDS

Instead of boosting speeds for individual devices, Wi-Fi 6 improves the network when lots of devices are connected.

This is an important objective, and it comes at a crucial time: when Wi-Fi 5 was released, the average US household had about five Wi-Fi devices. Currently, homes have nine Wi-Fi devices on average, but firms predict we’ll hit 50 in a few years.

It takes a toll on your network to add those devices. There is a limit to how many devices your router can communicate with at once, so the more gadgets using Wi-Fi, the slower your entire network will be.

In Wi-Fi 6, some new technologies are introduced to help mitigate the problems caused by putting dozens of Wi-Fi devices on one network. Routers can communicate with multiple devices simultaneously, send data to multiple devices in a single broadcast, and allow Wi-Fi devices to schedule check-ins with the router. Together, those features should enable connections to remain strong as more and more devices begin demanding data.

 

WI-FI’S WEIRD NAMING SCHEME:

Until recently, Wi-Fi generations were referred to by an arcane naming scheme that made it hard to determine whether 802.11n was faster than 802.11ac or 802.11af was faster than 802.11n. (Answer: Kind of.)

In order to fix this, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to rename Wi-Fi generations with simple version numbers. In other words, the current generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac, became Wi-Fi 5. Formerly known as 802.11ax, this new generation is now called Wi-Fi 6.

Since Wi-Fi 5 has been around for five years and recently got that name, you won’t hear it very often. Wi-Fi 6 might be called 802.11ax here and there, but companies appear to be largely on board with using the simplified naming scheme.

 

OKAY, SO HOW FAST IS EACH DEVICE?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here.

Wi-Fi 6 connections won’t be significantly faster at first. A Wi-Fi 6 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 6 router may only be slightly faster than a Wi-Fi 5 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 5 router.

As you add more and more devices to your network, the story begins to change. While current routers can become overburdened by requests from a multitude of devices, Wi-Fi 6 routers are designed to more effectively keep all those devices updated with the data they need.

The devices’ speeds won’t be faster than what they can reach today on a high-quality network, but they will be more likely to maintain those top speeds. Home where one person is watching Netflix, another is playing a game, and someone else is video chatting, and a whole bunch of smart devices – a door lock, temperature sensors, light switches, and so on – are all checking in together.

It is unlikely that the top speeds of those devices will be increased, but the speeds you see in typical, daily use likely will be increased.

Exactly how fast that upgrade is, however, depends on how many devices are on your network and how demanding they are.

 

HOW DO I GET WI-FI 6?

You’ll have to buy new devices.

To get the new version of Wi-Fi, you will need new phones, laptops, and so on. New Wi-Fi generations rely on new hardware, not just software updates.

This is not something you’ll want to run out to the store and buy a new laptop just for. This isn’t a game-changing update for any one device.

Instead, new devices will come with Wi-Fi 6 by default. Over the next five years, you’ll replace your phone, laptop, and game console with new ones that include Wi-Fi.

One thing you will need to buy, though: a new router. You won’t see any benefits if your router doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, no matter how many Wi-Fi 6 devices you bring home. (Connecting Wi-Fi 5 gadgets to a Wi-Fi 6 router would actually be beneficial, as it could communicate with more devices at once.)

Again, this isn’t something you should rush out and buy right away. However, if you have a lot of Wi-Fi-connected smart devices in your home and things start to sluggish in a couple of years, a Wi-Fi 6 router may be able to help.

 

WHAT MAKES WI-FI 6 FASTER?

MU-MIMO and OFDMA are two technologies that speed up Wi-Fi 6 connections.

“MU-MIMO,” which stands for “multiple users, multiple inputs, multiple outputs,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 improves it.

A router can communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, then to the next, and so on. MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at once. Up to eight devices will be able to communicate with Wi-Fi 6.

According to Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an internationally backed industry group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi, MU-MIMO connections are like adding delivery trucks to a fleet. “You can send each of those trucks to different customers,” Robinson says. “Before, you had to fill four trucks with goods and send them to four different customers. Wi-Fi 6 gives you eight trucks.”

OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows data to be transmitted simultaneously to multiple devices with one transmission.

Robinson explains that OFDMA essentially allows goods to be delivered to multiple locations using one truck. OFDMA allows the network to see “I’m only allocating 75 percent of that truck and another customer is heading our way,” and then fill up the remaining space with a delivery for the second customer, he says.

In practice, all of this is done to get more out of every transmission that carries a Wi-Fi signal from a router to your device.

 

WI-FI 6 CAN ALSO EXTEND BATTERY LIFE

Another new feature of Wi-Fi 6 allows devices to plan out communications with a router, reducing the amount of time they need to keep their antennas powered on to transmit and search for signals. In turn, that means a longer battery life and less battery drain.

Using a feature called Target Wake Time, routers can schedule check-in times with devices.

But it won’t be helpful across the board. It is unlikely that your laptop will make heavy use of this feature (except when it moves into sleep mode).

This feature is instead intended for smaller, already low-power Wi-Fi devices that only need to update their status every now and then. (Think small sensors placed around your home to monitor things like leaks or smart home devices that are usually unplugged.)

 

WI-FI 6 ALSO MEANS MORE SECURITY

Earlier this year, Wi-Fi got its biggest security update in a decade, with a new security protocol called WPA3. By constantly guessing passwords, WPA3 makes it harder for hackers to crack passwords, and some data is less valuable even if hackers get access to it.

Devices and routers can support WPA3, but it’s optional. As WPA3 is required for Wi-Fi 6 certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance, most Wi-Fi 6 devices will likely include stronger security once the certification program launches.

 

WI-FI 6 IS JUST GETTING STARTED

Wi-Fi 6 devices are just beginning to appear. There are already Wi-Fi 6 routers available, but so far, they are expensive high-end devices. The new generation of Wi-Fi is also on a few laptops, but it’s not widely available yet.

Wi-Fi 6 will, however, start appearing on high-end phones this year.

Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor supports Wi-Fi 6, destined for the next generation of top-of-the-line phones. Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a good sign: Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first smartphones to feature the new processor, and it supports Wi-Fi 6.

Inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 is likely to become more common next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program this fall, ensuring compatibility across devices. Devices do not need to pass that certification, but its launch will signal that the industry is ready for Wi-Fi 6.

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