The last decade has brought more and more of our lives online, and wireless internet has helped make that transition possible. The latest version of this technology is Wi-Fi 6, also referred to as 802.11ax.
The term “Wi-Fi” was created by the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance and refers to a group of wireless networking protocols that are based on the IEEE 802.11 network standard. Wi-Fi has been around since the late ‘90s, but has improved dramatically in the last decade.
To make the differences between each generation more obvious, the Wi-Fi alliance recently adopted a more traditional naming convention, dropping the 802.XX designation for a simplified numerical suffix. This simplified numerical scheme (Wi-Fi 6 vs. 802.11ax) makes it easier to know what generation of the technology is being used and to determine compatibility with devices that support that version.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 is a substantial upgrade over previous generations, though the differences may not seem immediately obvious to the average user. The changes brought about by Wi-Fi 6 don’t revolutionize the way we use wireless routers or wireless networking, but consist of many incremental improvements that stack up to be a potentially substantial upgrade.
The first is that Wi-Fi 6 allows for potentially faster speeds.4 5
Faster Wi-Fi means better upload and download speeds (or throughput) due to the increased bandwidth afforded by Wi-Fi 6. This is becoming increasingly important as file sizes continue to increase, along with the higher data demands of streaming high-quality video and communication-heavy online gaming. Playing a multiplayer game while also streaming to Twitch* requires large amounts of bandwidth, and a reliable and stable connection.
Because of this, many gamers or content creators still connect directly to routers or network switches via Ethernet cables instead of taking advantage of the flexibility that wireless networking provides. Wi-Fi 6 brings wired and wireless signals closer to parity, potentially freeing more users from the constraints of being hardwired to their modem.
So, how much faster is Wi-Fi 6? While it’s important to contextualize these numbers, Wi-Fi 6 is capable of a maximum throughput of 9.6 Gbps across multiple channels, compared to 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. These are theoretical maximums, however; in real-world situations, bandwidth will not approach these speeds locally, and your overall internet connection speed is dictated by your broadband connection. That said, because that maximum is shared across multiple devices, devices with Wi-Fi 6 can enjoy significantly faster 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 achieves these higher data transfer speeds through a variety of techniques, starting with more efficient data encoding and intelligent use of the wireless spectrum made possible by more powerful processors.
Wi-Fi 6 also improves speeds by handling large amounts of network traffic more efficiently. For gamers, this means faster game downloads, better upload speeds for streaming gameplay, up to 75% less latency, and more reliable media multitasking.
Most homes today have significantly more Wi-Fi enabled devices then they did even five years ago. From smartphones and tablets to televisions and IoT devices like thermostats and doorbells, just about everything can connect to a wireless router these days. Wi-Fi 6 communicates better with multiple devices that need data simultaneously, and more efficiently prioritizes traffic across those devices. One of the ways it achieves this by using Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA.)
OFDMA works by subdividing channels into subcarriers and allowing for transmission to multiple endpoints (devices) at the same time. A Wi-Fi 6 router can send different signals in the same transmission window. This results in a single transmission from the router being able to communicate with multiple devices, instead of each device having to wait its turn as the router serves up the data across the network.
Another Wi-Fi 6 feature that can help to improve network congestion is Overlapping Basic Service Sets (OBSS).
With older versions of Wi-Fi, devices trying to connect to a network used a “listen before talk” process, which meant they had to “listen” for any noise on a channel before transmitting. If there was any noise on the channel, even if it originated from a distant network, they would have to wait until the channel was clear before transmitting in order to avoid potential interference.
OBSS enables the access point to use a “color” in order to uniquely identify the network. If other traffic is detected on the channel, but it is not the same color of the local network, devices can ignore it and continue transmission. This can help increase reliability and improve latency.
Working together, OFDMA and OBSS allow for more effective communication on crowded networks. As more and more of our devices utilize Wi-Fi, this will help preserve the speed and stability of our connections.
Another technology that Wi-Fi 6 continues to improve is beamforming.
This futuristic-sounding data transmission method is actually relatively simple. Instead of broadcasting data in all directions, the router detects where the device requesting the data is located and transmits a more localized data stream in that direction. Beamforming isn’t new to Wi-Fi 6, but its efficacy has been improved in this generation. Working in tandem with other integrated technologies like OFDMA and OBSS, beamforming helps make Wi-Fi 6 faster.
But there’s more to Wi-Fi 6 than just faster speeds.
Speed is probably the most important thing to the average user, especially for gamers, but there’s more to a wireless network. Wi-Fi 6 also promises improvements in security.
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is a common Wi-Fi security protocol that uses passwords for encryption. Anytime a password is required to sign into a Wi-Fi network, that’s WPA in action. WPA 2 has been the standard for a long time, but that’s changing with Wi-Fi 6.
One of the biggest improvements is the implementation of increased password security via the Dragonfly Key Exchange system, also called SAE or Simultaneous Authentication of Equals. This authentication method helps make passwords harder to crack by using a more sophisticated method of establishing the handshake with the Wi-Fi network. This added layer of security, coupled with stronger encryption, means Wi-Fi will have more robust security options than ever.
This extra layer of security is a great example of how Wi-Fi 6 changes things for the better without negatively impacting the user experience.
Battery Life and TWT
Another forward-facing development incorporated into Wi-Fi 6, Target Wake Time (TWT), has the ability to potentially increase battery life on some devices.
This technology allows for more efficient communication between your router and device regarding when to sleep or wake up. By effectively communicating with the device’s Wi-Fi radio and only activating it when it needs to be awake, your device will spend less time and energy searching for a wireless signal.
This can enhance battery life.
What Do I Need to Make Wi-Fi 6 Work?
Wi-Fi 6 offers serious improvements, so you might be wondering what you need to take advantage of this new protocol. The most important upgrade you’ll need to make is acquiring a Wi-Fi 6 capable router. Most manufacturers offer routers with Wi-Fi 6 capability already, so there are plenty of options to choose from.
You’ll also need devices that have the ability to use Wi-Fi 6. Though Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible with the older 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6 capable device to take advantage of everything we’ve listed here. As Wi-Fi 6 increasingly becomes the standard over the next few years, newer devices will start incorporating the technology, and it will become the new normal.
If you’re looking to upgrade your desktop to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6, make sure your new motherboard has it integrated, or check out these M.2 expansion cards that are designed to utilize everything Wi-Fi 6 has to offer. If you’re looking for a gaming-focused Gig+ Wi-Fi 6 solution, check out this Killer™ Wi-Fi 6 AX1650 Wi-Fi 6 card designed in partnership with Intel. These devices use 160MHz channels that allow for Gigabit wireless speeds — up to 1700 Mbps — or three times faster than standard Wi-Fi 5 under ideal circumstances.
Wi-Fi 6 will have a dramatic impact on the way we interact with our wireless devices. Between the faster speeds, better traffic prioritization, and added security, Wi-Fi 6 is a significant step forward in wireless network technology.
Whether you’re gaming, working, or just streaming video, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 is worth considering.