As technologies go, Wi-Fi has moved ahead quite quickly. We went from the first mainstream wireless networking option, 802.11b running at 11Mbps in the 2.4GHz band to the current 802.11ac that offers up to 1Gbps over dual frequency bands in less than 15 years. But another new standard, dubbed Wi-Fi 6 presumably because 801.11ax isn’t good for marketing things that are new, will increase performance almost five-fold. Why should you care?
There’s no doubt we access more data than ever before. But it’s not just about downloading information. One of the most significant shifts in how we use networks is that we now rely on them to stream data. Thinking back just a few years, the way to listen to a song or watch a movie was to download it and then watch it once the entire file was stored locally. Now we access content as it arrives, bit by bit, on our computers, tablets and smartphones. This is the world Wi-Fi 6 is entering.
Wi-Fi 6 will help squeeze more bandwidth out of the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz your router already employs. The result will be increased capacity using the same channels with less interference and faster data transfer speeds.
The Wi-Fi Alliance is also doing a little ret-con along the way. The two most recent, but soon to be superseded, standards, 802.11ac and 802.11n will be renamed Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4 respectively. That means you’ll be seeing those labels appear on networking gear over the coming months.
The improvements in Wi-Fi 6 fall into two areas.
Network speed gets a boost with transfer rates of 1.1Gb/s over the 2.4GHz band (with four streams available) and 4.8Gb/s over the 5GHz band (with eight streams available). Assuming you’ve got a fast enough pipe coming into your home or office, that means you could stream 8K video if all your internal networking kit supports it. We can also expect better performance in crowded environments.
Wi-Fi 6 also promises a lower power draw so connected devices won’t run out of juice quite as quickly as with the older standards.
Newer Wi-Fi 6 gear, which is expected to start appearing next year, will be backwards compatible with the older Wi-Fi standards so you can progressively update all your gear.