Wi-Fi 6: What It Is and Why It’s Better

Contributing Writer
Updated

What's in a name? For the Wi-Fi Alliance's new router naming convention, it's not only an opportunity to cut through the technical jargon with a straight-forward numbering convention, but also to debut  the industry’s newest standard, previously known as 802.11ax. Meant to simplify and distinguish between different generations of Wi-Fi products, the naming system assigns a number to each protocol.

Credit: WiFi AllianceCredit: WiFi AllianceHigher Wi-Fi rating numbers correspond to newer devices, technology and – hopefully – better performance. In other words, the IEEE 802.11 n, ac and ax names are out and Wi-Fi 4 through Wi-Fi 6 are in.

"It is a way to telegraph to users the Wi-Fi experience they will get," said Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing at the Austin-based Wi-Fi Alliance. For example, getting an 802.11ac router is the default choice today and carries a Wi-Fi 5 rating. People continue to buy older 802.11n systems, which get a Wi-Fi 4 rating. On the other hand, 802.11 a, b and g devices are too old to be included in the Wi-Fi Alliance's numerical ratings.

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Wi-Fi 5's seat at the top of the current router hierarchy is changing, though. That's because 802.11ax routers will soon start to appear and get a Wi-Fi 6 rating. "The idea is to give buyers the information they need to make an informed choice," Robinson said. "Wi-Fi 6 is the best you can get." The group will start certifying Wi-Fi 6 routers in the second half of 2019.

Higher Numbers, Better Performance

Beneath the Wi-Fi 6 rating is a series of improvements that will boost performance while better accommodating the needs of a diverse group of devices, from tablets, phones and notebooks to thermostats, phones and video cameras. To get the most out of the changes will require Wi-Fi 6 routers and devices.  Robinson said, "Wi-Fi 6 will still work with Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 devices but work best with Wi-Fi 6 equipment."

Credit: WiFi AllianceCredit: WiFi AllianceWhile the new routers risk being an alphabet soup of acronyms, there's a lot going on with the new gear. To start, Wi-Fi 6 uses Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) transmissions that debuted on 802.11ac devices but were more often on high-end systems like the Linksys EA8500 (an early model from 2015) and the more modern Netgear Nighthawk XR500. It also doubles the potential bandwidth from four streams to eight streams.

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To this, Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) to squeeze more data into the available spectrum compared with Wi-Fi 5's (aka 802.11ac) Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM). The trick is that OFDMA divides the available radio spectrum into smaller units to raise throughput and efficiency based on the data traffic flow.

Wi-Fi Gets Smarter and Faster

What can you expect from Wi-Fi 6? The individual changes add up to a maximum throughput of over 10Gbps under ideal conditions. Wi-Fi 6 will be able to keep a step ahead of the diversity of devices in homes to allow simultaneous 4K video streaming, gaming and use by a wide variety of smart home products, like locks, thermostats and remotely controlled light switches. "It’s for the home of the future,"  Robinson said.

Credit: WiFi AllianceCredit: WiFi AllianceA big change is that 802.11ac's 256 Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) is replaced by Wi-Fi 6's 1024 QAM broadcasting over up to eight spatial data streams. These extra channels are augmented by Wi-Fi 6's Operation Mode Indication (OMI). Think of OMI as a communication portal that transmits not the data packets but information about the peak bandwidth that the receiver can efficiently use. The actual data is then sent in this streamlined format.

Wi-Fi 6 routers will be smarter at moving data, thanks to a feature called Target Wake Time (TWT). Aimed at battery-powered devices like thermostats and water leak sensors, TWT can simultaneously extend the device's battery life while making the network more efficient by connecting to the router only when needed, avoiding frequent battery-wasting wake-up calls.

This is just the start. Wi-Fi 7 is around the corner and could make the current spec look like a slowpoke. What it can do and when it'll appear is anyone's guess, but if the recent spacing between new protocols continues, expect Wi-Fi 7 sometime around 2023.

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