What is Wi-Fi 6? The new standards explained

Anton P. | May 13, 2021

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest version of the 802.11 standards for wireless network transmissions. In simple terms, it is an upgrade revamping the way Wi-Fi works. This next-generation technology debuted in 2019 and made quite the splash with its potential. But what makes consumers and businesses opt for routers and devices supporting Wi-Fi 6? First and foremost, increased speeds are potentially the biggest attraction. However, this technology is much more than a speed boost for your connections. It can help effectively manage busy networks with lots of devices and users.

What is Wi-Fi 6? The new standards explained

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) is the sixth upgrade aimed at refining wireless networks. It is a bundle of innovative technologies that solve the current issues users experience. In essence, it boosts speed, but more than that, Wi-Fi 6 allows routers to communicate with more devices simultaneously. Thus, this new technology addresses the growing demands for connectivity and network efficiency.

In this era of technology, users tend to have multiple internet-connected devices at their homes. For the most part, Wi-Fi 6 is the solution to the ever-growing number of devices pinging the internet. It aims to mitigate the issues that typically occur when networks deal with a lot of devices. In addition to relieving network congestion, it also offers an increased theoretical speed. For comparison, Wi-Fi 5 had a maximum of 3.5 Gbps. With Wi-Fi 6, you get 9.6 Gbps.

Of course, such turbo speeds are rare, and consumers are unlikely to hit the maximum. However, the fact that Wi-Fi 6 has such a high speed limit is significant nonetheless. It might contribute to faster speed for individual devices. After all, the 9.6 Gbps would not necessarily go to a single device. Multiple gadgets are likely to share it, meaning each of them could work faster.

According to Statista, consumers in the US tend to have more than ten devices in their households. People in the UK are not too far behind, having more than nine devices on average. In Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, the numbers vary from seven to nine on average. In 2014, a similar study focused on American users and reported 5.2 as the average number of connected devices per household. In 2020, this number seemed to have doubled.

How does Wi-Fi 6 work to make networks more efficient?

Wi-Fi 6 has a crafty way of supporting faster connections. It packs much more information in one transaction and still manages to serve dozens of users connected to the network. It achieves this in two ways:

  • Sending more binary code. Wi-Fi 6 ensures faster connections by, essentially, sending more binary code with a single transfer. That binary code later turns into the information you requested. QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) measures the amount of data (or code) transferred. For instance, Wi-Fi 5 routers are 256-QAM. It means that such devices send eight digits of binary code with each signal. Wi-Fi 6 steps it up and reaches 1024-QAM. Thus, it sends ten digits of binary code each time. The more binary code reaches you from a single signal, the faster you receive your information.
  • Splitting bandwidth between various sub-channels. Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). Many treat it as a game-changer when it comes to serving dozens of clients with varying bandwidth requirements. In simple terms, Wi-Fi 6 will allocate bandwidth according to these demands. As a result, it minimizes latency and contention. By establishing multiple access points, routers can also communicate with many devices simultaneously.

Besides elevating performance, Wi-Fi 6 has a number of security enhancements tackling the issues previous standards encountered. For one, it uses WPA3 certification, which performs robust encryption and advanced key management. Previous standards have all relied on WPA2, encryption no longer seen as secure enough. Thus, it will not only elevate security for home routers. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are bound to become much safer as well.

Can you use Wi-Fi 6 right now?

In theory, nothing stops you from upgrading your home network. Households that require robust IoT connectivity will notice significant benefits from Wi-Fi 6. However, there are specific requirements that you must meet. For one, you will likely need to buy a new router that supports Wi-Fi 6. Also, Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, meaning that it will serve all devices regardless of whether they support Wi-Fi 6.

In 2019, when the technology took its first steps, options for such routers were sparse and relatively expensive. Currently, there are more budget-friendly options, varying anywhere from $70 to more than $200. Of course, there are more high-priced items available that offer an abundance of features. For instance, a Wi-Fi 6 router designed for gaming can cost you more than $600.

In addition to replacing your old router, you will also need new devices. The models you currently have might not support Wi-Fi 6. If you plan to get a new laptop or phone, checking for Wi-Fi 6 support is the way to go. For instance, Huawei P40, iPhone 11, LG V60 ThinQ, OnePlus 8, and Samsung Galaxy S10 are available options. For laptops, you can choose Lenovo Yoga c940, Asus Chromebook Flip c436, or Dell XPS 13 (2020).

Please note that the speed boost might not be very significant. If you pay for the cheapest wireless plan available, Wi-Fi 6 router won’t do much. Thus, you will likely need more expensive plans to experience its true potential.

What the future holds

Besides Wi-Fi 6, you might have noticed another new term circulating. It is Wi-Fi 6E (E stands for Expanded). Until recently, Wi-Fi devices could only operate in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. However, the FCC opened a 6 GHz band as well. Wi-Fi 6E devices are the only ones that can operate in all three bands.

To be clear, Wi-Fi 6E is not a new version of the wireless standards. Instead, it is a special support for Wi-Fi 6 devices allowing them to broadcast in the 6 GHz.

In 2021, we see Wi-Fi 6E routers slowly emerging on the market. Some devices like Samsung Galaxy S21, ASUS ROG Phone 3, and Lenovo Legion also tap into the newly opened spectrum. However, experts note that regular households should hold off the integration of Wi-Fi 6E.

In fact, while Wi-Fi 6 devices are a welcome upgrade, they are not exactly a necessity. It all depends on your appetite for connectivity. If you manage a vast network of IoT devices, this tech is right up your alley.

Nonetheless, it is the most effective in dense, crowded locations that deal with many devices and users. While offices, airports, and other institutions might opt for Wi-Fi 6 routers and devices, you might resist the temptation for now. Until then, you can try other tricks for increasing Wi-Fi speed. However, if the opportunity to upgrade your setup comes, you should opt for devices compatible with the new tech.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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