Wi-Fi just turned 6. Not in terms of years old (Wi-Fi is a lot older than that), but in terms of its version number: Wi-Fi 6 officially launched this week.
What does that mean for you? Well, if you’re anything like me – meaning you spend a lot of time indoors using the internet – it’s actually pretty big news, because this new generation of Wi-Fi promises to be faster, stronger, and better than the wireless technology we use today.
First, a little bit of a backgrounder, because most of us have probably never even heard of Wi-Fi versions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. So where did Wi-Fi 6 come from all of a sudden?
In technological terms, Wi-Fi is the name we use to describe a set of wireless networking protocols based on the IEEE 802.11 standards. These standards have been around in various forms for over two decades, and their origins actually trace all the way back to the 1980s.
Since then, there have been about 15 evolutionary iterations leading up to the Wi-Fi 6 that just became official, although most of those improvements have been incremental steps.
That said, Wi-Fi 6 – aka IEEE 802.11ax – isn’t merely incremental.
Like its most significant predecessors (802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac), 802.11ax represents a generational turning point for the tech: a milestone standard that device makers will support for years to come in new smartphones, tablets, computers, ‘smart home’ gadgets, and of course wireless routers.
If you’ve been using Wi-Fi for a while, you might remember some previous generations of the IEEE 802.11 technology, such as 802.11g and 802.11n, which preceded the 802.11ac standard most of us use today.
Every time we jump between these Wi-Fi versions, we see a significant boost in things like connection speeds and signal strength, plus other new wireless features come into play.
For example, the last big jump before now – from 802.11n to 802.11ac – was a game-changer for me personally: the first time I’d ever gotten a strong wireless signal throughout my entire house from one router.
Similarly, the performance improvements from 802.11g to 802.11n were immediately noticeable, with a marked increase in connection speeds.
Because the names of these various 802.11 standards have always been a bit of a mouthful, last year the Wi-Fi Alliance – the trade organisation that oversees and certifies Wi-Fi technology – announced a new naming structure.
From now on, the previous standard, 802.11n, would be known as Wi-Fi 4; the current standard, 802.11ac, would be called Wi-Fi 5; and the next-gen standard, 802.11ax, which just became official, is Wi-Fi 6.
So what’s so special about Wi-Fi 6 from a technological standpoint? As per usual, moving to Wi-Fi 6 from Wi-Fi 5 will see you gain a significant increase in data rates, with a theoretical download speed of up to 9.6 Gbps (gigabits per second) compared to Wi-Fi 5’s 6.9 Gbps.
Of course, those are theoretical maximums you’d never see in actual real-world usage, but nonetheless 802.11ax’s speed improvements should be easily noticeable.
Another thing we can expect to look forward to is how Wi-Fi 6 will provide capacity for more devices, with technologies including orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) and multi-user multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO) helping the standard to provide a wireless connection to up to four times as many devices on a single network.
All this sounds great, but when will the technology become available? Since the Wi-Fi 6 certification is now officially available to product manufacturers as of this week, we won’t have to wait long.
New and imminent devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and Apple’s iPhone 11 support Wi-Fi 6, as will the upcoming Google Pixel 4, along with new laptops, tablets, and other devices being released in the near future.
To see any of Wi-Fi 6’s benefits, though, you’ll also need a Wi-Fi router that supports 802.11ax, which will soon become the standard technology on all but budget models (and eventually those, too).
In reality, this means it will take months or years before the benefits of the 802.11ax become widely available and enjoyed by most of us – based on whenever you decide to next upgrade your gadgets to devices that support the new standard.
When you do, though, your internet will be noticeably faster (depending on the limits of your home’s internet connection, that is), and it’ll be easier to run more devices more reliably around your house or apartment.
These are all good things in your future, but it doesn’t end there.
Believe it or not, Wi-Fi 7 is already in the pipeline, and is expected to hit sometime around 2024. Then… things will get even more interesting.