In January of this year, at the annual multithousand-square-foot madhouse of consumer electronics in Las Vegas, manufacturers started slipping a new claim into their spec sheets: Supports Wi-Fi 6. New laptops and routers from HP, Dell, Asus—they would all support this new standard. The following month, when Samsung revealed its Galaxy S10 smartphone, it listed Wi-Fi 6 support among the many whiz-band features of the fancy phone. “Wi-Fi 6” was now being included in a flagship product.
So … what is this new standard that everyone’s pledging to support? Wi-Fi 6 is the latest generation of wireless connectivity technology. It hasn’t really launched yet, but it will soon, so tech makers have been building support into devices this year as a means of future-proofing their products.
As with most new standards, its stewards say that Wi-Fi 6 will ultimately make our tech lives better and faster. That’s probably true. But keep in mind that the main objective with the launch of Wi-Fi 6 is to increase the performance and reliability of wireless connectivity at a network level, not necessarily on a single device or at a single access point. Sure, your Roku and your Nintendo Switch will see wireless speed gains, but a lot of the new computational intelligence behind Wi-Fi 6 will be devoted to handling streaming to multiple gadgets at once. It’s Wi-Fi for a world crowded with mobile gadgets, IoT devices, and connected equipment.
The standards for Wi-Fi are established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, or IEEE, and devices are certified for these new standards by the the Wi-Fi Alliance, which lists over 800 companies as sponsors or contributors. The list includes Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Intel, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Microsoft, Samsung, LG Electronics, and, well, hundreds more.
These groups lay the foundation for new radio technologies every five years or so, which means Wi-Fi 6 has been in the works since the last standard was released in 2014. The current wireless networking standard we all use today is referred to as IEEE 802.11ac. The upcoming standard is called IEEE 802.11ax.
But you can just call it Wi-Fi 6. That simplified moniker actually represents a change in how the Wi-Fi Alliance is branding these standards. Every Wi-Fi standard will get named in sequence from now on—especially nice since Wi-Fi 6 certainly rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than “802.11ax.”
“We decided to change the paradigm with Wi-Fi 6,” says Edgar Figueroa, the president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “We’re done talking about technologies. Now we’re talking about generations.” So “Wi-Fi 6” will be used more broadly to describe which version of the Wi-Fi network you’re connected to, as will “Wi-Fi 4” and “Wi-Fi 5.” Meanwhile, Wi-Fi Certified 6 will refer to the certification program that device makers have to go through.
How It’s Different
Wi-Fi 6 is expected to usher in the first major update to dual-band support since the 2009 rollout of Wi-Fi 802.11n—or Wi-Fi 4, since we’re calling it that now. Wi-Fi 4 operates on both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Wi-Fi 5, née 802.11ac, only uses bands in the 5-GHz spectrum. Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, is supposed to optimize for the transmission frequencies of both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Two of its marquee features are multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology (MU-MIMO), and something called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA).
What the what?
Basically, this tech enables more devices to simultaneously operate on the same Wi-Fi channel, which improves the efficiency, latency times, and data throughput of your wireless network. And while Wi-Fi 6 is designed to improve the performance of Wi-Fi networks on the whole, on your own device you might experience up to four times the capacity and four times the data throughput (the amount of data moved from one point to another) that you would with older wireless network standards. Figueroa says this could mean a throughput of 9 to 10 gigabits per second in optimal conditions.
Figeroa also said that, thanks to computational intelligence, devices used at the edge of Wi-Fi range (about a football field’s length away) will still have decent Wi-Fi connectivity, because the network will “know” to send a stronger signal to those edge devices. A new mechanism for “scheduling”—up to 12 streams at once—will ensure that, even if there are loads of gadgets connected to the same network, they’ll still maintain a strong connection. And as part of the certification process, every piece of tech that claims Wi-Fi 6 support will have to support WPA3, a new security standard that offers more individualized encryption options.
You might be wondering about backwards compatibility, and it’s a good question. Even if your older device isn’t Wi-Fi 6 certified, it will still be able to pull a signal from Wi-Fi 6 routers. The experience just might not be optimized, to use that word for the umpteenth time. If you do have a Wi-Fi 6 certified device, like one of the new Samsung phones, you’ll have the added benefit of knowing what type of network it’s connecting to. Alongside the familiar Wi-Fi icon at the top of your screen, you’ll now see a 4, 5, or 6 affixed to it.
Signal of the Future
Since Wi-Fi standards aren’t updated all that often, the official launch of Wi-Fi 6 will be significant. But, again, even though the launch of the Wi-Fi Alliance certification program is expected in early fall—typically a kind of inflection point for wider adoption—Wi-Fi 6 is not here just yet. We probably won’t see manufacturers fully embrace the available chipsets until next year. Even then, both the “end user” devices and the wireless routers serving up the connectivity will have to be using Wi-Fi 6 in order for people to experience the enhancements therein.
So far we’ve seen the launch of products like the Asus RT-AX88U Dual-Band Wi-Fi 6 Router, Netgear’s Nighthawk AX12 12-Stream Wi-Fi 6 Router, TP-Link’s Archer AX 6000, HP’s EliteBook x360 830 G6, Dell’s newest Latitude laptops (7000, 5000, and 3000 series), and the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note10 smartphones, all listing support for Wi-Fi 6. There are obviously more to come.
There’s also the added cost to consider. Samsung’s premium smartphones are already expensive by all measures, and HP’s Elitebook might cost upwards of $1,500 anyway, but the new Wi-Fi 6 routers from Asus and Netgear are significantly more expensive than last year’s models, ranging from $350 to $400.
Still, once this new standard of Wi-Fi is adopted it should offer faster speeds, the ability to simultaneously connect as many IoT gadgets as our homes and offices and coffee shops and train stations will allow, and potential peripheral benefits like better battery life. It’s one step closer to the gadget-filled future we were promised; provided that sounds like your notion of an ideal future.
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