Wi-Fi 6 explained: how fast is it, really?

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The future of wireless Internet is officially here.

Well... technically, it's been around for a few years now. First debuted at last year's Consumer Electronics Show and announced well before that, Wi-Fi 6 promised better speeds, higher bandwidth, and more efficient data management. Unfortunately at the time, the new standard was only available on a few devices, most of which were almost prohibitively expensive.

As we move into 2021, this is no longer the case.

More and more devices with Wi-Fi 6 functionality are now beginning to hit the market as it becomes more widespread and readily-available. It will likely only be a few years before Wi-Fi 6 becomes the new, de-facto standard. But what exactly will that mean for wireless networks?

Let's start with a bit of knowledge.

Exploring the origins of Wi-Fi

Way back in the 90s, the institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) established the 802.11 wireless standards. While it's a little too complicated to get into here (and doesn't really serve much purpose in terms of explaining Wi-Fi 6), this set of constantly-evolving specifications basically acts as a framework for how wireless networks behave.

Shortly after the release of the first 802.11 standard, an organization known as the Wi-Fi Alliance was formed. Its founders quickly realized what a headache phrases like "IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN" would be for consumers, and so pioneered a new term. And no, it doesn't stand for "Wireless Fidelity" — in an interview with Scientific American, Alex Hills, author of Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio, explained that it's just a catchy name without much other meaning behind it.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has operated behind the scenes ever since, working with IEEE to ensure that Wi-Fi products meet the established standards. At this point, you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with Wi-Fi 6. We're getting to that.

What Wi-Fi 6 is (and isn't)

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Back in 2018, the Wi-Fi alliance realized something. The laundry list of Wi-Fi standards that were now on the market was not only dry, but also terribly confusing. While anyone with a background in networking knows the difference between 802.11ac and 802.11n, they might as well have been written in a foreign language for the rest of us.

As a result, the organization pioneered a new naming system alongside the release of the latest standard, 802.11ax, now known as Wi-Fi 6. Consequently, 802.11ac, the current leading standard, is now known as Wi-Fi 5. It makes a lot of sense, right?

As you may have survived from the new naming convention, although Wi-Fi 6 represents a considerable upgrade over Wi-Fi 5, it's nothing revolutionary. The release of Wi-Fi 6 isn't going to change the world or cause widespread market disruption. Rather, it's something that will happen gradually, quietly leading to improved network performance and better support for the growing Internet of Things.

How fast is Wi-Fi 6?

On paper, Wi-Fi 6 appears to blow Wi-Fi 5 out of the water. The former has a top speed of 9.6 Gbps, while the latter maxes out at 3.5 Gbps. Given those numbers, you might expect a Wi-Fi 6 device to offer a considerable performance hike over a Wi-Fi 5 device.

That isn't likely to happen, though. A higher maximum speed doesn't mean a faster Internet connection. What it does mean, however, is better overall network performance.

And that's really what Wi-Fi 6 is about. Performance and efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 is a standard designed to support the modern smart home, which may have several dozen devices on the same network at the same time.

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With Wi-Fi 6, gateway hardware is capable of communicating with more devices simultaneously. Wi-Fi 6 enabled endpoints, meanwhile, will be able to automatically "check in" with the router at set intervals, saving both bandwidth and battery life. What this translates to, in plain English isn't a network that's faster, but rather a network that's capable of maintaining its top speed even in incredibly dense, busy environments.

It's able to do this thanks to several new technologies. The first is an upgraded version of the multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) technology already present in Wi-Fi 5, doubling the number of maximum simultaneous connections from four to eight. The second is known as orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), and essentially allows a router to deliver data to multiple endpoints with a single broadcast rather than communicating with each device individually.

What else does Wi-Fi 6 bring to the table?

Aside from general performance improvements and a higher top speed, the biggest change between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 is in network security. The release of Wi-Fi 6 replaces WPA2 encryption with WPA3. That's pretty big news — especially given that the last time we saw a new wireless security protocol was in 2004.

In addition to stronger overall encryption, WPA3 has a few extra bells and whistles designed to better protect you and your data. First, it makes brute force attacks against wireless networks significantly more difficult to pull off. It also adds a new feature known as forward secrecy, which basically turns data into binary soup after it's been transmitted over a network.

Finally, natural password selection helps users choose more secure, easily-memorable network passwords. There are several additional features that apply exclusively to enterprise usage, but we don't really need to cover them here.

Do I need Wi-Fi 6?

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At the moment, Wi-Fi 6 is still in its relatively early stage. That said, it will eventually become the standard. Within the next several years, the majority of smart devices available on the market will be shifted from Wi-Fi 5 to the new standard.

If you want to leverage the new features, you'll need a router or mesh network that's Wi-Fi 6 capable. Additionally, swapping over to the new standard means you're likely to enjoy improved performance, particularly if you have a large amount of smart devices on your network. Basically, upgrading now means you'll be ready for the standard's more widespread proliferation while simultaneously improving your own quality of life.

Here's where eero comes in. The recently-released eero 6 line of mesh systems offer enhanced speeds, a more pleasing aesthetic, and full backwards compatibility with existing eero hardware. More importantly, they fully support the Wi-Fi 6 standard, making them the perfect purchase for anyone looking to future-proof their smart home.

AC Staff