What is Wi-Fi 6?
A guide to the faster future of the internet
The latest overhaul of wireless networks is upon us, and it promises a future of more devices connected on faster networks. Here’s everything you need to know
The sound of “802.11ax” may not shake you with excitement or even ring a bell – but whether or not you are familiar with the technical name for the latest iteration of Wi-Fi, it is coming at us.
For most people, it will be known as Wi-Fi 6. That’s because the Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies Wi-Fi devices, has decided to make wireless networks more comprehensible to us by renaming the various versions of the standard. Instead of talking of 802.11b, which was the first iteration of Wi-Fi released in 1999, we can now say “Wi-Fi 1”.
So Wi-Fi 6, if you’ve been following, is the sixth time the IEEE – the professional organization that sets standards in the telecommunications industry – has improved on its wireless LAN (WLAN) technology and released a new standard for it. In short, it will make Wi-Fi even better; and while it is not yet ready to be widely adopted, it has already launched in some routers and devices.
Has Wi-Fi 6 piqued your curiosity already? If so here’s everything you need to know about the next generation of WLAN, and how it will make your streaming hours even better.
Why should I care?
Because Wi-Fi 6 will – in theory – reduce the time you spend plugging and unplugging your router to get your movie to download, or scheduling streaming times so that you don’t overlap with your flatmate’s movie night. “It will enable significantly faster throughput in high-density environments where many devices must use the same wireless access point,” says Bill Menezes, principal analyst at Gartner.
According to industry analysts, it will be roughly 30 percent faster than Wi-Fi 5, and a team at CNET even registered speeds up to 40 percent faster, at 1,320 Mbps. This is a lot more than most devices need to function on their own, but it will significantly speed things up where there are multiple receivers tied to a single router.
This improvement will not only affect 5GHz networks, which the industry has largely shifted to, and which provide faster data on shorter distances; it will also make 2.4GHz networks faster, which are typically slower but better at penetrating solid objects like walls.
What’s the magic trick?
Wi-Fi 6 will be delivering data a lot more efficiently to reach those speeds, and it all comes down to two main reasons. If you picture Wi-Fi signals as transactions between an access point, like a router, and a device, like a phone, Wi-Fi 6 will pack more information into one transaction, while also delivering to more customers in one go.
The first way to do that will be to send more binary code, which then translates as information, with each signal. This can be measured in QAM, or Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. Wi-Fi 5 routers currently are 256-QAM, which means that they work on the basis of eight digits of binary code for each signal. With Wi-Fi 6, this will jump to 1024-QAM, or ten digits of binary code. More code means more information is sent, which means data gets to you faster. It’s a win-win.
To complement that, Wi-Fi 6 will be fitted with a technology called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), that lets it divide its bandwidth between various sub-channels. “It helps divide the spectrum and allocate bandwidth to different user requirements, reducing contention and latency,” says Menezes. And by creating multiple access points, it will let your router communicate with various devices at the same time.
What is so revolutionary about it?
According to Leif-Olof Wallin, an analyst at Gartner, Wi-Fi 6 is mainly “evolutionary” – however, he maintains that it could be “a game-changer” for some use cases. Namely, for situations where many users need to connect to wireless networks, like stadiums, shopping malls, convention centers or airports.
In those high-density environments, various wireless access points may be using the same channels for their transmissions, which causes interference. Wi-Fi 6 will deploy Basic Service Set (BSS) Colouring, a technology that marks – or colors – shared frequencies with a number, so that networks can intelligently decide whether the channel is too busy, and avoid congestion if so.
Another useful Wi-Fi 6 setting is Target Wake Time (TWT), which should increase your devices’ battery lives. TWT will manage your devices so that those which need to periodically connect to Wi-Fi, such as IoT devices, are scheduled to connect only when they need to. This will save the device extra battery life while also clearing your wireless channel of any unnecessary interference.
Who really needs it?
“Speeds of 10 Gbps sound great,” says Menezes, “but the reality is we don’t see a lot of current use cases demanding even close to that.” In reality, Wi-Fi 6’s better management of crowded environments is likely to meet bigger needs.
In a Gartner report, analyst Christian Canales identified that in increasingly connected workspaces, for example, where employees are equipped with up to four wireless devices – laptop, tablet, phone and wearable – and buildings are getting ever smarter, the new capabilities that come with Wi-Fi 6 will be beneficial.
Other fields that could improve as a result are augmented reality and virtual reality, which businesses could experiment with for training, product design or visualisation. On a similar note, Wallin says: “Serious gamers and use cases where location tracking is important will benefit the most.”
That’s not to say, of course, that you won’t see any difference. Especially in households that require strong IoT connectivity, a faster bandwidth is always an improvement. That’s something to excite anyone who has ever complained about how slow their connection is.
What’s the catch?
Wi-Fi 6 is definitely coming – in fact it is already here, in routers from brands like Netgear or Asus, and in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10. But you may not reap the benefits of the new technology just yet, because Wi-Fi works as an ecosystem. That means that you would have to upgrade all your devices, as well as your router, to Wi-Fi 6-compatible ones in order to take advantage of its faster speeds.
In addition, you shouldn’t expect to see any improvements if you are stubbornly paying for the cheapest wireless plan out there. If the speed you are buying from your internet service provider is too slow, a Wi-Fi 6 router won’t do much to change that. There is no need to start comparing prices just yet, though, as most plans currently don’t go fast enough to unleash Wi-Fi 6’s full potential.
All this means that Wi-Fi 6 is still a while away from global adoption. Wallin underlines that it is still in its early days, and that it will take some time before endpoint devices catch up: “As usual, with any new standard, there is a high likelihood for minor incompatibilities between different vendors,” he says.
For his part, Menezes forecasts that only 22 per cent of notebook computers will have integrated Wi-Fi 6 technology by 2022. So that’s a few years to keep saving money on your internet plan.