Understanding 2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz vs. 6 GHz
Understanding your wireless connectivity options starts with talking about waves—specifically radio waves—which are used by devices to exchange data between devices over the air.
All waves have a pattern and can be described by a wavelength (the distance a wave travels before the pattern repeats itself) and a frequency (how many times the pattern repeats over a given time period).
When talking about wireless connectivity, wavelength and frequency directly impact the amount of data that can be sent, the speed at which data gets from one device to another, and how far the data can travel.
What’s in a Number?
Radio waves transmit information over a specific range of frequencies, also referred to as the RF spectrum. For communications, specific groups of frequencies in the RF spectrum, or bands, are used. These bands can be further grouped into a range of subfrequencies, called channels. The use of frequency bands and channels for specific applications, such as Wi-Fi, TV, radio, and air traffic control, is regulated by government agencies.
The numbers 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz refer to the specific RF frequency bands approved for unlicensed wireless use. A lower number means fewer wave pattern repetitions over time and therefore a longer wave with longer range, while a higher number means more repetitions that can transmit more data over shorter distances. For context, 1 hertz (Hz) represents one repetition per second, and 1 gigahertz (GHz) represents one billion repetitions per second.
A simple way of understanding wireless connectivity is to think of each frequency band as a different type of road and channels as the number and width of the lanes each road can support. 2.4 GHz is similar to a one-lane country road that isn’t designed for heavy traffic but can take you farther into rougher landscapes. 5 GHz is like a multilane freeway that is commonly used as an alternative to country roads and is often congested even though it’s larger. And the latest band, 6 GHz, is much larger and has many more high-speed lanes that are exclusive to the newest and fastest vehicles.
Just as the number of available lanes on a road and the width of those lanes can impact driving speed and travel time, RF channel characteristics have an impact on connection speed and data transfer rates within an RF band.
- The 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum is 70 MHz wide, and devices are typically limited to three 20 MHz channels.
- The 5 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum is approximately 500 MHz wide, and devices can use up to six larger 80 MHz channels for faster speeds. However, only two of the six channels are always readily available as four channels may be restricted from use at times due to weather or airport radar.
- The 6 GHz Wi-Fi spectrum is 1200 MHz wide (more than double the size of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums) and supports up to seven even larger 160 MHz channels. These channels are only accessible to new Wi-Fi 6E devices, and they enable gigabit Wi-Fi speeds and allow operations free from legacy Wi-Fi interference.
The Latest Specification: 6 GHz
The availability of newer frequencies is regulated by governmental bodies primarily to ensure usability across newer generations of technology. Countries do not want newer technology to be hindered by contention with older devices on aging networks. The 2.4 GHz band offered adequate performance in the early days of Wi-Fi with fewer devices and more basic usages like email and web surfing. For the last 10 to 15 years, 5 GHz has been the preferred band as the number for devices has grown exponentially, media resolutions and file sizes have increased dramatically, and our usages have evolved and become more complex.
We collectively run more video streaming, gaming, and cloud applications to the point where 5 GHz congestion can often limit user experiences. That’s why, as of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened the 6 GHz spectrum exclusively for new devices in the United States, and other regional governments are doing the same.
2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz vs. 6 GHz: Difference in Speed
In addition to channel characteristics, typical data transfer speeds are influenced by factors such as other devices using the band, physical objects or walls reducing signal strength, or limitations imposed by an internet service provider (ISP).
- 2.4 GHz can deliver a typical over-the-air max speed of up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps).
- 5 GHz can deliver up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
- 6 GHz can deliver up to 2 Gbps.
Interference, Network Clutter, and Signal Contention
2.4 GHz has been available on the market the longest, so most legacy devices still use this frequency, generating a lot of network clutter. This is why users in apartment buildings can experience connectivity issues using the 2.4 GHz band. Not only does 2.4 GHz have the longest range and wall-penetration capability of the available bands, but it’s also traditionally the most used.
6 GHz, the newest commercially available band, is only available on newer, generally more-advanced devices. With fewer devices currently on the 6 GHz band and more available channels, users will experience less congestion and interference from legacy Wi-Fi devices.
So how can you reduce the impact of interference, network clutter, and signal congestion on your speed and transfer rates? The good news is that your router or device OS is already working to find the best path. The router chooses the channel for the device, and if there are multiple routers or access points, the device’s OS will choose the closest access point with the strongest signal—even if there are several other devices on the same access point or channel.
Access points will try to avoid channels that are occupied by other neighbor networks, but with many networks, they may have to select smaller channels to avoid interference or, in the worst-case scenario, choose the same channel as another network if that’s all that’s available.
Additionally, you can choose devices that connect to a range of frequency bands to give you more connectivity and performance options.
When to Use 2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz vs. 6 GHz and Coverage Area
In general, any real-time application that demands high levels of precision or responsiveness and faster speeds will benefit most from higher frequencies such as 5 GHz and 6 GHz. For gaming, home theater, and home office applications that depend on a lot of voice and video calls, using the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands is recommended.
2.4 GHz is the “best effort” network for Wi-Fi, ideal for sending small amounts of data over longer distances. While it’s true that this lower frequency band will have broader range than higher frequencies, the range is often negligible. Most users will have similar or as-good-as connectivity throughout their homes using a 5 GHz or 6 GHz band.
Diversifying Bands for the Best Connectivity and Performance
There is a viable use case for 2.4 GHz when connecting several Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the home, such as smart thermostats, smart doorbells, and internet protocol (IP) cameras. The reason for this is simply to reduce network contention on your 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands and to free up more channels for higher-priority, real-time applications like gaming and streaming.
Legacy Compatibility Across 2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz vs. 6 GHz
If frequency bands are like roads, then Wi-Fi signals are like cars on those roads. And just as roads may have vehicle type restrictions, the frequency bands a Wi-Fi device can connect to can also be restricted based on the standard the device was built to.
All Wi-Fi technologies are built to a specific Wi-Fi standard, which also specifies the frequency bands to which they can connect. Wi-Fi 4 built to the 802.11n standard from 2007 came in two different versions: 802.11bgn, which could only access 2.4 GHz bands, and 802.11agn, which was dual band and able to connect to 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Wi-Fi 5 built to the 802.11ac standard can only connect to 5 GHz, but many Wi-Fi 5 products were also using legacy Wi-Fi 4 802.11bgn as a separate mode to connect to 2.4 GHz bands. Interestingly, you cannot use your Wi-Fi generation to determine which bands your device can connect to. In the case of Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, the standard was developed prior to the 6 GHz band being available. Only Wi-Fi 6E can access all three spectrums, including 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz.
If you want to take advantage of the latest wireless speeds, you will need to acquire newer access points, routers, and devices that support 6 GHz connectivity. The good news is that your older devices will still be able to connect to the legacy Wi-Fi bands of newer tri-band routers.
The Wi-Fi technologies you use every day, from Wi-Fi 4 to Wi-Fi 6E, are based on standard specifications such as 802.11 and its many permutations that were developed, tested, and certified by industry groups.
These groups, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), help ensure device interoperability and common user experiences. With nearly two decades focused on connected platform experiences, Intel has fulfilled leadership roles in each of these industry bodies to help bring Wi-Fi technologies to market, allowing for so many of your favorite wireless devices to function consistently today.
Intel Offers the Best Choice for Connectivity
Intel has been focused on enabling great wireless experiences from the early days of the Intel® Centrino® platform in 2003 to today’s Intel® Evo™ laptops. Intel® Wi-Fi differs from the competition with expansive platform and ecosystem validation to help ensure high-speed connectivity that’s consistent and reliable.
Intel® Laptops with the Latest Processors
To help ensure users can enjoy great networking experiences on Intel-based premium laptops, we require Intel® Wi-Fi 6E (Gig+) on all Intel® Evo™ and Intel vPro® laptops for model years 2022 and beyond.
Intel® Killer™ Wi-Fi for Gaming
Available on some Intel-enabled laptops and as stand-alone PCIe kits for desktop builds, Intel® Killer™ Wi-Fi optimizes your connection, specifically when gaming. This innovative technology prioritizes the gaming data packets over background processes like system updates to help ensure low latency.
Not All Wi-Fi Is the Same
It’s easy to take wireless connectivity for granted, but Intel has continued to improve Wi-Fi technology for all its PC platforms. Our day-to-day dependence on wireless connectivity will continue to increase as technology advances to unlock new experiences and possibilities. Intel is dedicated to making Wi-Fi as seamless and as powerful as possible along that journey.