Faster internet is constantly in demand, especially as we consume more bandwidth-demanding apps, games, and videos with our laptops and phones. Wi-Fi is about to get faster. But the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6, isn’t just a simple speed boost. Its impact will be more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time.
Wi-Fi 6 is just starting to arrive this year, and there’s a good chance it will be inside your next phone or laptop. Here’s what you should expect once it arrives.
What Exactly Is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 is the next-generation wireless standard that’s faster than 802.11ac. More than speed, it will provide better performance in congested areas, from stadiums to your own device-packed home. It’s coming in 2019.
Who made Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest association of technical professionals. Along with a lot of other functions (its stated mission is “to advance technology for the benefit of humanity”), the IEEE is basically the keeper of Wi-Fi, with committees responsible for developing it and establishing industry standards.
How Fast Is It?
The short but incomplete answer: 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5.
The real answer: both of those speeds are theoretical maximums that you’re unlikely to ever reach in real-world Wi-Fi use. And even if you could reach those speeds, it’s not clear that you’d need them. The typical download speed in the US is just 72 Mbps, or less than 1 percent of the theoretical maximum speed.
But the fact that Wi-Fi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still important. That 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to a single computer. It can be split up across a whole network of devices. That means more potential speed for each device.
What Makes It Faster?
There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 upgrades it.
The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then the next, and the next. Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. Wi-Fi 6 will allow devices to communicate with up to eight.
The other new technology, OFDMA, which stands for “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 be delivered to multiple locations. “With OFDMA, the network can look at a truck, see ‘I’m only allocating 75 percent of that truck and this other customer is kind of on the way,’” and then fill up that remaining space with a delivery for the second customer, he says.
In practice, this is all used to get more out of every transmission that carries a Wi-Fi signal from a router to your device.
Wi-Fi 6 Isn’t about Top Speeds
Instead of boosting the speed for individual devices, Wi-Fi 6 is all about improving the network when a bunch of devices are connected.
That’s an important goal, and it arrives at an important time: when Wi-Fi 5 came out, the average US household had about five Wi-Fi devices in it. Now, homes have nine Wi-Fi devices on average, and various firms have predicted we’ll hit 50 on average within several years.
Those added devices take a toll on your network. Your router can only communicate with so many devices at once, so the more gadgets demanding Wi-Fi, the more the network overall is going to slow down.
Wi-Fi 6 introduces some new technologies to help mitigate the issues that come with putting dozens of Wi-Fi devices on a single network. It lets routers communicate with more devices at once, lets routers send data to multiple devices in the same broadcast, and lets Wi-Fi devices schedule check-ins with the router. Together, those features should keep connections strong even as more and more devices start demanding data.
What Are the Advantages of Wi-Fi 6?
1. Longer Battery Life
A new “target wake time” (TWT) feature means your smartphone, laptop, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices should have longer battery life, too.
When the access point is talking to a device (like your smartphone), it can tell the device exactly when to put its Wi-Fi radio to sleep and exactly when to wake it up to receive the next transmission. This will conserve power, as it means the Wi-Fi radio can spend more time in sleep mode. And that means longer battery life.
This will also help with low-power “Internet of Things” devices that connect via Wi-Fi.
2. Better Performance in Crowded Areas
Wi-Fi tends to get bogged down when you’re in a crowded place with a lot of Wi-FI enabled devices. Picture a busy stadium, airport, hotel, mall, or even a crowded office with everyone connected to Wi-Fi. You’re probably going to have slow Wi-Fi.
The new Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, incorporates many new technologies to help with this. Intel trumpets that Wi-Fi 6 will improve each user’s average speed by “at least four times” in congested areas with a lot of connected devices.
This wouldn’t just apply to busy public places. It could apply to you at home if you have a lot of devices connected to Wi-Fi, or if you live in a dense apartment complex.
3. Better Security
Last year, Wi-Fi started getting its biggest 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, and 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 Wi-Fi 6 device to receive certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPA3 is required, so most Wi-Fi 6 devices are likely to include the stronger security once the certification program launches.
4. Faster Wi-Fi
As usual, the latest Wi-Fi standard offers faster data transfer speeds. If you’re using a Wi-Fi router with a single device, maximum potential speeds should be up to 40% higher with Wi-Fi 6 compared to Wi-Fi 5.
Wi-Fi 6 accomplishes this through more efficient data encoding, resulting in higher throughput. Mainly, more data is packed into the same radio waves. The chips that encode and decode these signals keep getting more powerful and can handle the extra work.
This new standard even increases speeds on 2.4GHz networks. While the industry has shifted to 5GHz Wi-Fi for less interference, 2.4GHz is still better at penetrating solid objects. And there shouldn’t be as much interference for 2.4GHz as old cordless telephones and wireless baby monitors are retired.
How Do I Get Wi-Fi 6?
You will need to buy new devices. Wi-Fi generations rely on new hardware, not just software updates, so you will need to buy new phones, laptops, and so on to get the new version of Wi-Fi.
To be clear: this is not something you will want to run out to the store and buy a new laptop just to get. It’s not that game-changing of an update for any one device.
Instead, new devices will start coming with Wi-Fi 6 by default. As you replace your phone, laptop, and game consoles over the next five years, you’ll bring home new ones that include the latest version of Wi-Fi.
There is one thing you will have to make a point of going out and buying, though: a new router. If your router doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, you won’t see any benefits, no matter how many Wi-Fi 6 devices you bring home. (You could actually see a benefit, though, connecting Wi-Fi 5 gadgets to a Wi-Fi 6 router, because the router may be capable of communicating with more devices at once.)
Again, this isn’t something worth rushing out and buying. But if your home is packed with Wi-Fi-connected smart devices, and things start to get sluggish in a couple years, a Wi-Fi 6 router may be able to meaningfully help.
The Bottom Line
Devices supporting Wi-Fi are just starting to spread out. You can already buy Wi-Fi 6 routers, but so far, they’re expensive high-end devices. A handful of laptops include the new generation of Wi-Fi, too, but it’s not widespread just yet.
Wi-Fi 6 will start arriving on high-end phones this year, though. Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855, includes support for Wi-Fi 6, and it’s destined for the next wave of top-of-the-line phones. The Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee that a phone will have Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a good sign: Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first phones with the new processor, and it supports the newest generation of Wi-Fi.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 is likely to become even more common next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program this fall, which guarantees compatibility across Wi-Fi devices. Devices don’t need to pass that certification, but its launch will signify that the industry is ready for Wi-Fi 6’s arrival.
However, the Wi-Fi Alliance has no power to force companies to use these version numbers, although they “encourage” companies to adopt them. Some manufacturers may ignore these version numbers and just call the new generation of Wi-Fi “802.11ax” instead. Many companies likely won’t be in a rush to rename existing 802.11ac to Wi-Fi 5, either.
We hope most companies will quickly get on board with the new naming scheme.