You’ve likely heard a lot about “Wi-Fi 6” in the past year or two. But what exactly is Wi-Fi 6? It’s the next-generation of Wi-Fi and it’s set to make your wireless internet even faster than ever before.
However, it is not as simple as a one-time speed increase for your Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6 is pretty similar to the 5G upgrade on mobile networks. It’s a future-facing upgrade that is designed to make sure that your speeds don’t slow down in a few years.
Wi-Fi 6 is already here, and your smartphone and/or laptop likely supports it. Now let’s talk more about it so you can see whether it is as big of a deal as the tech world wants it to be.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
To put it simply, Wi-Fi 6 is the next-generation of Wi-Fi. It’ll be better than Wi-Fi 5, which is what the majority of us have right now. It’ll still mostly work the same as Wi-Fi does not, but with some improvements.
Speed-wise, it’ll be a pretty big upgrade over Wi-Fi 5. Coming in at theoretical top speeds of 9.6Gbps versus the 3.5Gbps that Wi-Fi 5 would max out at. Of course that’s all theoretical and you’d never really see those speeds.
Wi-Fi’s naming scheme
The naming scheme for new versions of Wi-Fi were pretty confusing until recently. It basically required you to know whether 802.11n was faster than 802.11ac or whether those were just made up letters and numbers for the most part. Recently, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to change that, and rename generations with simple version numbers. Similar to mobile networks (1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, etc). So what we use now, which is 802.11ac, was turned into Wi-Fi 5. And now the next generation which was going to be called 802.11ax, is now simply Wi-Fi 6.
This will make it a whole lot easier to understand different generations of Wi-Fi, which is indeed, very important.
How can I get Wi-Fi 6?
To get Wi-Fi 6, you’ll need to start with the router. Make sure you pick up a Wi-Fi 6-compatible router. Though most routers released in the last couple of years are going to be Wi-Fi 6-compatible, so that shouldn’t be a huge issue. In fact, AT&T’s routers for its fiber network are compatible with Wi-Fi 6 (and Wi-Fi 6E, but that’s another version of Wi-Fi we’ll explain at another time).
Once you have that new router that works with Wi-Fi 6, now you’ll need new devices to connect to it that also support it. That includes laptops, desktops, smartphones, etc. Again, most smartphones, tablets and laptops released in the last couple of years will support Wi-Fi 6. Some, like the OnePlus 9, will also show you in the status bar when you are connected to a Wi-Fi 6 network.
So the simple answer for how you can get it, is to buy new hardware. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi 6 is not a software upgrade.
What devices support Wi-Fi 6?
As mentioned already, Wi-Fi 6 is really not that new, so a lot of products on the market today already support it. Even though it’s not a feature that gets marketed as much. Here is a list of what devices are supported. This is not a comprehensive list, but will give you an idea of the ones that are supported.
Wi-Fi 6 enabled smartphones
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- OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20
- Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra
- Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
Wi-Fi 6 enabled laptops
Wi-Fi enabled routers
- Asus RT-AX86U AX5700 Router
- eero 6 Mesh Router
- eero Pro 6 Mesh Router
- Netgear Nighthawk Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6E Router (RAXE500)
- TP-Link Archer AX50 (AX3000) Dual Band Gigabit Wi-Fi 6 Router
- TP-Link Archer AX11000 Next-Gen Tri-Band Gaming Router
How fast is Wi-Fi 6?
The theoretical fastest speeds for Wi-Fi 6 is about 9.6Gbps. While Wi-Fi 5’s fastest was around 3.5Gbps.
However, you’ll never see these speeds on either Wi-Fi 5 or 6. That is because these speeds are only capable in the perfect environment, and there are just too many variables that can affect the speed of your network. Not to mention that most areas are not even capable of pulling down a single Gigabit, nevermind multiple gigabits. The average download speed in the US is just 72Mbps, which is less than one percent of the theoretical maximum speed.
But don’t forget, that Wi-Fi networks these days have multiple devices connected to it. And they each draw quite a bit of power. So that full 9.6Gbps could go to a few laptops, smartphones and other devices on the network. Which means potentially faster speeds for each device, and less slowdowns when there are more devices on your network.
It’s not just about faster speeds
Sure, the faster speeds are nice, but that’s not all that Wi-Fi 6 has to offer. The biggest feature for Wi-Fi 6 is improving the network when there are bunch of devices connected to said network.
That’s important, and it comes at a great time. When Wi-Fi 5 came out several years ago, the average US household had about five devices on their network. Now that number has risen to nine. And most of you reading this article likely has much more. Many research firms have predicted that it will be closer to 50 in just a few years.
Of course, those devices to take a toll on your network and can really slow it down. Not to mention the fact that your router can only communicate with so many devices at once. Which means the more devices connected, the slower the network will be.
With WiFi 6, there are some new technologies included that will help mitigate those issues. It will allow routers to communicate with more devices at once, letting routers send data to multiple devices in the same broadcast, and lets WiFi devices schedule check-ins with the router. When you bundle these features together, it’s going to help keep connections strong, even as you start to add more and more devices to your network, and they demand more data.
What makes it faster?
Now it’s time to get a bit technical about Wi-Fi 6. In this generation of WiFi, there are two key technologies that are speeding it up. That’s MU-MIMO and OFDMA. And don’t worry, we’ll explain these in a minute.
MU-MIMO is one you’ve likely heard before, especially on the mobile networks side of things. It stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output”. This technology is not new, as it is inside most modern routers and devices already. But with WiFi 6, it gets an upgrade. MU-MIMO basically allows the router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then to the next device. Currently, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with up to four devices at once. However, with WiFi 6 that number doubles to eight.
It’s kinda like adding additional lanes to a highway to help with traffic congestion. So instead of sending traffic through four lanes, there is now eight lanes.
Now, the other one is OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access” and this will allow one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once. So it allows WiFi 6 to get more out of every transmission from the router to your device.
It’ll also improve battery life and provide better security
Two other benefits of WiFi 6 are going to be improved battery life and of course better security.
With WiFi 6, it’s going to allow devices to plan out communications with a router. This is going to reduce the amount of time they need to keep their antennas powered on to transmit and search for signals. And thus use up less of your battery life.
And all of this is thanks to a new feature called Target Wake Time. This feature will allow routers to schedule check-in times with devices on the network. Now, this won’t be helpful on every device on the network. As things like your laptop, need constant internet access. So you won’t see a big change in battery life there, except in standby-mode when it is not constantly connected. This feature will help smaller and low-power WiFi devices get better battery life. Like smart home products, maybe your Ring doorbell, etc.
Then there’s security. It’s actually not adding any new features here, but making it mandatory. In 2018, WiFi started to get a pretty big security update in a new protocol called WPA3. This makes it harder for hackers to get your passwords by constantly guessing them. And it also makes some other data less useful, even if hackers do somehow get it.
But, WPA3 is optional on WiFi 5. With Wi-Fi 6, it is going to be required for devices to receive certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Wi-Fi 6 is already pretty widely available, but Wi-Fi 6E is already on the way
As cool as Wi-Fi 6 sounds, it’s already somewhat outdated. You’ve likely heard of WiFi 6E already, which is like a mid-generation upgrade for Wi-Fi 6. There’s not a huge update with 6E, but it is also available now.
Wi-Fi 6 is pretty widely available already. With most modern smartphones, tablets, laptops and routers having support for it. And the support is only going to grow over the next couple of years.