What is Wifi 6 or 802.11ax?

No matter where you travel in the world, you’ll find WiFi just about everywhere. There are hotspots in cafes, retail shops, and even in parks. It’s in the vast majority of homes, too, with 89% of US homes connected to broadband using WiFi to access the internet. That being said – not all WiFi is created equal.

Since the invention of the technology way back in 1997, there have been several iterations of WiFi protocols. Each has improved on the speed, transmission distance, and reliability of the one before it. Now, there’s a new WiFi standard that’s about to come to market. It’s known as WiFi 6, and it’s going to introduce a raft of new features and improvements that users everywhere will need to know about.

To help you understand what WiFi 6 is and how it’s different from previous generations, here’s a rundown of the advantages, disadvantages, and changes the new standard is going to introduce. By the end, you’ll be an expert in all things WiFi. Let’s dive in.

What’s in a Name?

If you’ve already used WiFi in your home or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed by now that the upcoming WiFi standard uses a different naming convention than the ones it’s replacing. You might be familiar, for example, with WiFi standards like 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. The change is happening because the Wi-Fi Alliance (which is responsible for maintaining the technology standards and naming them) has decided to do away with the old way of naming each generation of WiFi. In truth, it was a move that was long overdue.

So, beginning with this new WiFi standard, each new revision will bear a number – not a letter (or letters). This change will also apply to previous generations of the technology, renaming them to make them easier for the average person to distinguish. The changes are:

  • 802.11b is now WiFi 1
  • 802.11a is now WiFi 2
  • 802.11g is now WiFi 3
  • 802.11n is now WiFi 4
  • 802.11ac is now WiFi 5

For those who are interested, the upcoming standard does have a name that uses the previous naming convention – 802.11ax – but don’t expect to see that on any of the devices that support it. Instead, manufacturers should soon start changing their hardware and software to use the new names, so users can tell which available networks use the newest technology.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of WiFi 6

As you might expect, this new version of WiFi improves upon its predecessor in several ways. The first improvement most users will notice is that it features data transfer speeds roughly 40% faster than WiFi 5. Translation: it’s much faster. Much of that is due to more efficient handling of the way the available wireless frequencies get used. By implementing a data handling architecture known as OFDMA, the WiFi base station can split each wireless channel into several subcarriers. That means it can talk at full speed with several connected devices at once, whereas previous standards were limited by the speed of the slowest connected device.

That higher speed capability also translates into power savings for connected devices. Since data doesn’t take as long to transmit and receive, you don’t need as much radio power overall. That should mean devices like smartphones and tablets will enjoy longer battery life when connected to WiFi. The standard doesn’t stop there, though. It also includes a feature called target wake time (TWT), which allows WiFi radios to power down whenever they’re not in use, even if it’s for brief periods. Added up, that downtime saves quite a bit of power when compared to previous WiFi standards.

The advantages don’t end there, though. A WiFi network using the new standard will also enjoy better performance in dense wireless environments. That means users won’t see slowdowns when there are too many connected devices, or when there are several competing WiFi networks nearby. To further minimize connectivity trouble, advanced beamforming technology also allows base stations to precisely control transmission direction that can help reach distant devices.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a technology without disadvantages. In this case, the good news is that there aren’t very many. One is that devices that support the new standard are still quite expensive. While that should change once more manufacturers start bringing products to market, it’s still a limiting factor for some.

The other disadvantage is range. The new standard doesn’t improve on the range of WiFi 5 networks, and in some environments, it might be slightly shorter. And, for users hoping to improve their internet connectivity, it’s important to note that it would take a gigabit internet connection to reach the full performance of the new standard, which most people still don’t have.

A New Standard, a New Band

There’s also another important development tied to the rollout of the new AX WiFi standard. It’s the introduction of a new frequency band that’s never been part of the WiFi ecosystem before. It happened when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow unlicensed use of the 6GHz band on April 23, 2020. That change permits WiFi networks to operate using its original bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz, as well as the newly-available 6GHz band.

To take advantage of it, a revision to the new standard known as WiFi 6E has been created. Right now, it exists to allow manufacturers to start building products that utilize the 6GHz band while they wait for regulators outside of the US to open up similar 6GHz band access in their countries. When universally available, networks using the new band will enjoy less congestion and even more speed beyond what was possible with the two preexisting bands.

The Bottom Line

At this stage, there’s little reason to run right out and buy a new AX WiFi router. Until more new devices start to support the standard, and more people start to buy them, there’s no advantage to being an early adopter. It also doesn’t make sense to hold out for WiFi 6E. It’s anyone’s guess when or if the needed global regulatory approvals will happen, so it could be years before products that use it reach consumers.

So, while it’s a certainty that 802.11ax is the future of WiFi, that future is still a few months away for most users. When the technology does go mainstream, though, it should have a big positive impact on wireless network reliability, speed, and availability wherever it’s in use. That’s good news at a time when wireless devices are clogging up airwaves all around the world with no end in sight. The only remaining question is – how long until the future of WiFi becomes the technology of today?

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