WiFi is about to get faster. That’s excellent news: faster internet is always in demand. As we are habitually consuming even more bandwidth-sapping games, apps, and videos services with our plethora of devices.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, the next-gen WiFi. WiFi 6 isn’t just a simple speed boost as previous advances have been. Its impact is much more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time.
The update is less of a one-time speed increase. But a future-facing upgrade designed so things don’t grind to a halt a few years down the road.
WiFi 6 is just starting to become a real thing. Major networking equipment vendors such as Cisco, Ubiquiti et al. are beginning to release compatible hardware. And there’s every chance your next phone or laptop will handle it.
So what is WiFi 6?
In short, WiFi 6 is the next generation of WiFi. It’ll still do the same fundamental thing of connecting you to the internet. Just with many new technologies to make that happen more efficiently, speeding up connections in the process.
How fast is it?
The short technical yet misleading answer is 9.6 Gbps or almost three times the capacity of WiFi 5.
The more accurate real answer. Both of those speeds are theoretical maximums that you’re unlikely ever to reach in the real-world.
And even if you could, it’s not clear that you’d need them. The typical download speed in the UK is just 72 Mbps or less than 1% of the theoretical maximum speed.
But the fact that WiFi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still essential. All of that 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to a single computer. In practice, it is shared across many devices, thus providing more potential speed for each device.
WIFI 6 isn’t about speed
Rather than boosting the speed for individual devices. WiFi 6 is all about improving the network capacity when many devices are connected.
That’s a fundamental goal, and it arrives at a crucial time. When WiFi 5 came out, the average UK household had about five WiFi devices in it. Now, the same homes have at least nine WiFi devices. With the current growth in connected devices, this will hit 50+ within a year or two.
WiFi 5 access points can only handle a limited (single digit) number of concurrent connections. The more devices you have demanding WiFi, the more the whole network performance will degrade.
Some new of the new technologies that WiFi 6 introduces help mitigate these issues. Allowing each access point to simultaneously communicate with more devices. Pumping-out data to multiple devices in the same broadcast. Permitting clients to schedule check-ins with its access point. In concert, those features should keep multiple connections healthy even as more and more devices start demanding data.
So how fast is each device?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here.
At first, WiFi 6 connections aren’t likely to be substantially faster. A single WiFi 6 device on WiFi 6 may only be slightly quicker than it would on WiFi 5.
The benefit of WiFi 6 comes in to play as more and more devices get added onto your network.
The current generation of access points get overwhelmed and slow down under the weight of requests from too many devices. A WiFi 6 access point is by design able to handle the demands of all those bandwidth-hungry devices. Thus keeping the data they need flowing efficiently.
Each devices’ speeds won’t necessarily be noticeably faster than they can reach today on a high-quality network. However, they’re more likely to be able to maintain those top speeds even in busy high-density environments.
WiFi 6 won’t necessarily increase a client’s raw performance; speeds you see in average daily use may feel like an upgrade.
However, exactly how fast that upgrade feels will depend on several factors
- how many devices are on the network
- The specification of those devices
- How these devices will benefit from the enhancements and efficiencies WiFi 6 affords
Also, consider that it blisteringly local network speed is all well and good. However, this will be irrelevant if your uplink to the internet is around the UK average.
How do I get WiFi 6?
You will need to to get the cheque book out.
Upgrading WiFi generations always require significant infrastructure investment. As Access Points, Ethernet Switches, Routers, and potentially even network cables, in the walls will need upgrading. Also, consider that having a superfast local network is all well and good. Still, it will not speed up your internet usage experience if your service is at the UK average levels 80Mbps.
To be clear:– this is not something you’ll want to run out to the store and buy a new laptop to get the new standard. It’s not that game-changing of an update for a single device.
Instead, new devices will start coming with WiFi 6 by default. As you organically replace your devices (phone, laptop, and tablet) over the next five years. You will slowly introduce new ones that include the latest version of WiFi.
What makes WiFi 6 so speedy?
“multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern access points and devices, but WiFi 6 upgrades it.
The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously. Rather than sequentially jumping to one device, and then the next.
Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. WiFi 6 will enable devices to communicate with up to eight.
“You can send each of those trucks in different directions to different customers,” Robinson says. “Before, you had four trucks to fill with goods and send to four customers. With WiFi 6, you now have eight trucks.”
The other new technology “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
Extending the truck metaphor, Robinson says that OFDMA essentially allows one truck to carry goods to deliver to multiple locations.
“With OFDMA, the network can look at a truck, see it’s only allocating 75% of that truck. This other customer is kind of on the way. so fill up that remaining space with a delivery for the second customer.” he says.
So WiFi 6 gets more out of every transmission that carries a WiFi signal from an access point to the client device.
WiFi 6 can also improve battery life.
Another new technology benefit of WiFi 6 is that it allows devices to plan out communications with an access point. Consequently reducing the amount of time they need to keep their antennas powered on to transmit and search for signals. That means less drain on batteries and improved battery life in turn.
A feature called Target Wake Time, make this possible as it lets access points schedule check-in times with devices.
This feature is meant more for smaller, already low-power WiFi devices that need to intermittently update their status
Think remote sensors monitor things like leaks or other IoT devices that sit unused most of the day.
WiFi 6 Also means better security.
Last year, WiFi started getting its most significant security update in a decade, with a new security protocol called WPA3. WPA3 makes it harder for hackers to crack passwords by constantly guessing them. It makes some data less useful even if hackers manage to obtain it.
Current devices and routers can support WPA3, but it’s optional. For a WiFi 6 device to receive certification from the WiFi Alliance, WPA3 is required. So most WiFi 6 devices are likely to include the more robust security once the certification program launches.
All this is just the tip of the WiFi 6 iceberg.
Devices supporting WiFi 6 are just starting to trickle out. You can already buy WiFi 6 routers and standalone access points, but so far, they’re expensive high-end devices. A handful of laptops include the new generation of WiFi, too, but it’s not widespread just yet.
WiFi 6 has started to arrive on high-end phones. Qualcomm‘s latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855, includes support for WiFi 6. Destined for the next wave of top-of-the-line android phones. The Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee that any phone will have WiFi 6.
However, it is a good sign. Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first phones with the new processor to support the latest generation of WiFi.
The inclusion of WiFi 6 is likely to become even more expected this year. The WiFi Alliance launched its WiFi 6 certification program towards the end of 2020, which guarantees compatibility across WiFi devices. Devices don’t need to pass that certification, but its launch signifies that the industry is ready for WiFi 6’s arrival.