What Is Wi-Fi 6?

What you need to know about the sixth generation of wireless networking

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Wi-Fi 6 is the common name given to the IEEE 802.11ax wireless standard. Every five or so years, a new standard like this one is released, and a new crop of devices come out to support it.

Like all the previous wireless standards, the goal with a new version like Wi-Fi 6 is to make Wi-Fi faster and more reliable. There's still an access point that delivers Wi-Fi to any devices connected to it—that doesn't change, but a few improvements come with Wi-Fi 6 over older standards:

  • Faster speeds
  • More reliable connections during congestion
  • Longer battery life
  • Better security
Wi-Fi 6 written on a blue background

Wi-Fi Version Numbers

If you’re familiar with wireless standards, you’ve probably seen other letters following 802.11. With the introduction of Wi-Fi 6 being used to describe 802.11ax since it’s the 6th version, we can now attribute a version number to the older standards:

  • Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax) was released in 2021
  • Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) was released in 2019
  • Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) was released in 2014
  • Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) was released in 2009

This naming scheme makes it easier to know which Wi-Fi technologies are newer than the other ones.

Wi-Fi 6 Features

There are several benefits to Wi-Fi 6 over Wi-Fi 5 (again, 802.11ac, as you might have known it) and older versions:

Faster Speeds

Wi-Fi 6 is nearly three times faster than Wi-Fi 5, and latency is reduced by 75 percent. With maximum transfer speeds of 9.6 Gbps vs Wi-Fi 5's 3.5 Gbps, you can download apps and files faster, stream movies with less buffering, use more devices on the same network with fewer hiccups, and have real time video chats with fewer delays.

It’s important to realize, however, that even though Wi-Fi 6 speeds are theoretically capped at nearly 10 Gbps, it doesn’t mean you can go out and buy a Wi-Fi 6 router and suddenly start downloading at those speeds. Not only is that not a realistic everyday speed due to factors like interference, but also what you pay your service provider for, since that's really how your data transfer caps are set.

For example, if you subscribe to an internet plan at home that delivers 10 Gbps, then yes, a Wi-Fi 6 router will let you take full advantage of those high speeds. However, if you pay for anything less, such as 2 Gbps or 20 Mbps, the Wi-Fi 6 router will only be able to download at that speed.

Beyond speed, Wi-Fi 6 is supposed to understand that devices on the outer edges of the network, those close to becoming too far from the router to get a signal, will receive a stronger signal than devices closer to the router. The idea is to allow all the connected devices to have an equal share, regardless of where they're physically located.

Better Battery Life

Target wake time (TWT) is a feature with Wi-Fi 6 that reduces the energy needs of devices. It basically lets a device and router come to an agreement about when data will be transmitted between them, thus allowing the client device to save power during times that it doesn’t need to deal with wireless data.

For example, instead of the device’s Wi-Fi radio staying on all day long even though it’s only sending/receiving data every 30 minutes, TWT lets the client’s radio shut down completely during its off time. When the predetermined time limit is reached (like 30 minutes), the device will wake up to deal with the data it needs to send or receive, and then shut down again.

Devices of all kinds can save power with TWT, but IoT (Internet of Things) is one area where this Wi-Fi 6 feature really shines. A water leak sensor, for example, doesn't necessarily need to send "no leak" reports every two seconds; maybe 1 minute intervals is fine.

This lets batteries last much longer before needing replaced or charged, or batteries could even be made smaller so that the devices themselves can be smaller.

Congestion Improvements

If you've ever tried streaming a video to your TV while there are six other people using the same network, especially if they're also watching videos, then you know just how shaky the connection can be. The video streams just fine for a minute or two and then stops, over and over.

Something similar happens with other downloads on a congested network but it's much easier to see the effects with a video that needs to run start to finish without skipping.

Wi-Fi 6 focuses on maintaining a speed over time, despite heavy network activity, so that you can have reliable connections longer. This works because Wi-Fi 6 routers can better communicate with more than one device at a time.

Older wireless standards use multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) to offer four separate streams that equally share in the overall bandwidth of the Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Fi 6 supports this as well but upgrades to eight streams per radio band and works on both uploads and downloads.

A similar Wi-Fi 6 feature that alleviates network congestion is called orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA). This lets one transmission from the router deliver data to more than one device along its route.

BSS (base service station) coloring is another performance booster for Wi-Fi 6 networks. Transmissions from your router are marked with a special identifier so that if a nearby network, like your neighbor's, collides with yours, the router will know which signals to ignore and which ones belong to your devices.

Improved Security

For Wi-Fi Alliance to certify a Wi-Fi 6 device, it has to support Wireless Protected Access 3 (WPA3), a similar but improved security feature related to WPA2.

There are several ways WPA3 makes a network more secure, including making it harder for hackers to guess passwords and protecting data should it become stolen.

Should You Get a Wi-Fi 6 Router?

The benefits that come with Wi-Fi 6 are clear, so it’s a no-brainer: you should buy a Wi-Fi 6 router, right? There are a handful of Wi-Fi 6 routers out there as well as compatible devices that work with it.

However, before you pick one out, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do the devices you’ll connect to the router support Wi-Fi 6? Older devices will still work with this type of router but they can’t take advantage of all of its new features.
  • Does the speed you’re paying your ISP for exceed your current router’s limits? Like we mentioned above, the global limit of your download speeds depends on your ISP, so if you’re paying for ultra-fast speeds that your current router can’t match, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 might be wise.
  • Are there only a few devices that use the network? Wi-Fi 6 benefits are more easily seen on networks that have lots of devices that are currently experiencing congestion.
  • Is it in your budget to get a more expensive router? Depending on the brand and specific model, a Wi-Fi 6 router might set you back another $100 or so compared to one that only supports Wi-Fi 5 and older standards.

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then you might be at a good place to find some benefits with a Wi-Fi 6 router. Companies like TP-Link, Cisco, Netgear, and Asus have Wi-Fi 6 offerings.

Otherwise, it’s probably best to wait until you have a compatible device that can reap the real benefits Wi-Fi 6 offers. Samsung's Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note 10, and Apple's iPhone 11, were some of the first devices to support Wi-Fi 6, but more phones, tablets, laptops, etc., will become available as time goes on.

Something else to think about when wondering if you should get a Wi-Fi 6 router is if you even need to utilize 10 Gbps. The average fixed download speed in the US is around 200 Mbps, and while this could very well be due to routers that don't support higher speeds, it's likely that most people just don't see a need for speeds approaching several gigabits per second.

That said, if you run a home server or require a new router for a big building with dozens or hundreds of devices, you're probably already paying for quite a bit of bandwidth. Even in homes with more than a few devices, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 will let everything—the gaming consoles, phones, desktops, laptops, video cameras, smart speakers, etc.—share in the 10 Gbps and do so more efficiently.

What Is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6, but it enables devices to transmit data on the 6 GHz band instead of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. This translates to even faster speeds for situations that call for high bandwidth. For example, if you live with an online gamer, you don't have to worry about their gaming interfering with your Netflix streaming.

Compatibility with Wi-Fi 6E requires a hardware upgrade, so you'll need new devices to take advantage of the update. Some routers and phones that support 6E started hitting the market in 2021, but the rollout is gradual.

What's Next?

As is natural for new technologies, Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) is what will eventually eclipse Wi-Fi 6 with even higher data rates and lower latency.

Some planned features include the ability to support up to 46 Gbps. Backward compatibility and coexistence with legacy devices in the 2.4, 5, and 6 GHz unlicensed bands is also expected.

Intel's Wi-Fi 7 and Beyond slideshow has more information.

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