WiFi 6 is the latest WiFi standard, and is technically called IEEE 802.11ax. It is designed to cater to a large number of connected devices. Hence, the focus is more on battery optimization, lower latency, and quicker response time, rather than just a speed boost.
WiFi is getting a big facelift. This year, several new routers, smartphones, laptops, tablets, smart TVs, and other devices will be shipped with the newest version of WiFi—WiFi 6.
WiFi versions were previously identified by 802.11 standards followed by letters like a, b, g, ac, etc. Although an industry insider can discern WiFi generation and power by this nomenclature, it’s difficult for a non-tech savvy person to figure out if “802.11g” is better than “802.11ac”.
Thankfully, WiFi Alliance, a group that oversees the standardization of WiFi technology, has instructed manufacturers to use the new WiFi 6 convention for devices coming with an 802.11ax WiFi standard.
In fact, some high-end smartphones coming out with WiFi 6 will have the number 6 embedded inside the WiFi icon in the notification bar. The 802.11ax standard is the technical name for the latest version of WiFi; you can read more about WiFi standards here.
It’s not just about speed
Generally, speed has been the biggest differentiator in WiFi generational upgrades. While this time around there is a speed upgrade from earlier versions, the speed boost isn’t phenomenal. WiFi 6 has a 9.6 Gbps max speed, so on a sequential basis, the speed jump isn’t big.
Still, 9.6 Gbps is quite fast, given that the average speed of Internet connectivity in the US is less than 200 Mbps. For those who don’t know, 200 Mbps is 0.2 Gbps. It is highly unlikely that you’ll ever max out the 9.6-Gbps speed cap.
Need for WiFi 6
If we have already achieved significant speed jumps in earlier iterations of WiFi, what does WiFi 6 brings to the table? Well, WiFi 6 is more concerned with handling an ever-increasing number of internet-connected devices in an optimal way.
If you think about it, in the last few years, there are so many electronic devices we use to connect to the internet. Not just the perennially “smart” phones, TVs, and computers, but other small electronic gizmos like switches, lights, surveillance cameras, etc. These devices are also getting connected to the Internet and becoming “smarter”. By integrating them with smart speakers like Alexa, you can control them with your words alone! It is wireless internet connectivity that is making all of this possible.
There has been an exponential growth of Internet-connecting devices in the last few years. When 802.11ac or WiFi 5 came out in 2014, there were about five devices per home in the US. Some reports suggest that by 2025, this number could shoot up to 20 devices. Considering the ever-increasing number of devices using wireless internet connection these days, WiFi 6 is designed to cater to a large number of connected devices. Hence, the focus is more on battery optimization, lower latency, and quicker response time, rather than just a speed bump.
Now, let’s look at the technologies in WiFi 6 that make these new capacities possible.
Dual frequency of operation
Although WiFi 5, the predecessor of WiFi 6, brought substantial speed improvement and better technology, the limitation of WiFi 5 is that it works exclusively on an exotic 5 GHz frequency.
Basically, WiFi can either work on a 2.4 GHz frequency or 5 GHz frequency. And, no, 5 GHz doesn’t mean double the speed compared to 2.4 GHz; it’s simply that the frequency spectrum in which wireless signals are sent is different. Now, the problem is that 2.4 GHz is the frequency where other electronic devices operate, like microwave ovens, baby alarms, or cordless phones. When the WiFi router and other electronics working on 2.4 GHz are in close proximity, there is a chance of interference between the wireless signals. This would imply that if your microwave oven is turned on and placed very close to a WiFi router working on a 2.4 GHz frequency, you would experience choppy internet connectivity.
In this context, the 5 GHz frequency is better, but the consequent problem is that for a 5 GHz WiFi router to be functional, devices connected to it also need to come with 5 GHz support. Not all mobiles, laptops, tablets, etc. come with 5 GHz support. That’s why having a router with both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz support is a good thing. That way, all devices, regardless of which frequency band they support, would be able to work on a WiFi 6 router.
Of course, there is a caveat. Manufacturers have started working on a new WiFi frequency—6 GHz—although regulatory approval to use 6 GHz frequency is pending in many countries. WiFi routers boasting 6 GHz support would be called WiFi 6e.
WiFi 6 comes with MU-MIMO technology. MIMO stands for multi-input multi-output. Basically, MIMO means sending wireless internet signals from a router through multiple channels by leveraging multiple antennae. This is done to facilitate more than one device connecting to the router.
802.11n or WiFi 4 was the first version to come with MIMO technology, but it was only single-user MIMO (SU-MIMO). WiFi 6, on the other hand, comes with multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). Although SU-MIMO allows multiple devices to communicate with the same router, it happens with one device at a time. The router quickly hops from one device to another, making the connection seem almost continuous.
However, when a particular device consumes more bandwidth, such as while streaming a video at 4k resolution, this would impede the switching speed. Thus, other connected devices on the network would experience lag. With MU-MIMO, devices connected to the router need not wait for their turn to get a wireless internet signal. Instead, they would get a dedicated wireless channel. With MU-MIMO in place, it’s like every device has its own WiFi router on a network.
Now, a MU-MIMO router comes in different variations, i.e., 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, etc. Here, 2×2 means that the WiFi would be divided into two streams using two antennae. Similarly, 3×3 means the WiFi would be divided into three channels using three antennae and so on.
However, this doesn’t mean that on a 3×3 MU-MIMO router you can add only three devices. It simply means that the fourth device would not be allocated a dedicated wireless channel for an uninterrupted internet connection. It would have to wait for the router to switch from one of the connected devices to the fourth device. In a way, the fourth device on a 3×3 MU-MIMO router would receive the same treatment as we experience in a SU-MIMO setup.
Some high-end WiFi 6 options that are scheduled to be released this year would come with a 12×12 setup. Four streams would be activated on 2.4 GHz and eight streams on 5 GHz. So, in a way, 12 devices could be connected to a WiFi 6 router, each of which would be allotted a dedicated wireless channel for uninterrupted internet connection.
Target Wakeup Time (TWT)
As mentioned earlier, the number of devices connected to the Internet has grown exponentially in the last few years. Additionally, many of these gizmos aren’t core computing devices. They don’t really need 24×7 internet access, such as your smart watch. In such cases, prolonging battery life is more important than having a super-fast uninterrupted internet connection.
WiFi 6 caters to this need through a technology called Target Wakeup Time (TWT). TWT allows devices to negotiate how often and how long they would need internet connectivity with the compatible router. With TWT in place, devices would go into a sleep mode when an active internet connection is not required.
Let me try to simplify TWT with an analogy. Consider a family of three (husband, wife, and son) who sleep in their own rooms. To wake up early in the morning, they put a common alarm at 6 am in the hall. Now, this is fine for the wife, as she needs to wake up early and prepare breakfast for her family.
However, the husband and son can wake up later, as they have their school/office close by. Thus, placing a common alarm to wake everyone up in the house is not a great idea. Instead, putting a separate alarm in each room is the better option. This is what TWT does. It negotiates with the devices in terms of when it is likely to need internet connectivity; if there is a prolonged period in which an active internet connection is not required, it would put the devices to sleep and thus save battery.
Should you rush out to buy a WiFi 6 router?
Well, you don’t really need to rush out to buy a WiFi 6 router right now, because there aren’t many devices that come with WiFi 6 support at the moment. Also, since it is a hardware upgrade, simply upgrading your mobile’s operating system won’t let you enjoy WiFi 6 capabilities. Nevertheless, WiFi 6 is compatible with the earlier version of WiFi, so your old devices would still work. However, to enjoy better speeds and the new technology that WiFi 6 offers, you’ll need both the device and the router to be compatible with WiFi 6.
Overall WiFi 6 has been designed to handle more devices on a network. So, if you’re a technophile with a plethora of devices at home that need to be hooked up to the Internet, your best bet is to choose WiFi options in the future!