Technology | 2021-07-14
Wi-Fi is about to get faster. That’s great news: faster internet is constantly in demand, especially as we consume more bandwidth-demanding apps, games, and videos with our laptops and phones. But the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6, isn’t just a simple speed boost. Its impact will be more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time. This is less of a one-time speed increase and more of a future-facing upgrade designed to make sure our speeds don’t grind to a halt a few years down the road.
Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi. It’ll still do the same basic thing — connect you to the internet — just with a bunch of additional technologies to make that happen more efficiently, speeding up connections in the process. The short but incomplete answer: 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. The real answer: both of those speeds are theoretical maximums that you’re unlikely to ever reach in real-world Wi-Fi use. And even if you could reach those speeds, it’s not clear that you’d need them. The typical download speed in the US is just 72 Mbps, or less than 1 percent of the theoretical maximum speed. But the fact that Wi-Fi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still important. That 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to a single computer. It can be split up across a whole network of devices. That means more potential speed for each device.
Instead of boosting the speed for individual devices, Wi-Fi 6 is all about improving the network when a bunch of devices are connected. That’s an important goal, and it arrives at an important time: when Wi-Fi 5 came out, the average US household had about five Wi-Fi devices in it. Now, homes have nine Wi-Fi devices on average, and various firms have predicted we’ll hit 50 on average within several years. Those added devices take a toll on your network. Your router can only communicate with so many devices at once, so the more gadgets demanding Wi-Fi, the more the network overall is going to slow down.
Wi-Fi 6 introduces some new technologies to help mitigate the issues that come with putting dozens of Wi-Fi devices on a single network. It lets routers communicate with more devices at once, lets routers send data to multiple devices in the same broadcast, and lets Wi-Fi devices schedule check-ins with the router. Together, those features should keep connections strong even as more and more devices start demanding data.
At first, Wi-Fi 6 connections aren’t likely to be substantially faster. A single Wi-Fi 6 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 6 router may only be slightly faster than a single Wi-Fi 5 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 5 router. "Devices are more likely to maintain fast speeds on busy networks" The story starts to change as more and more devices get added onto your network. Where current routers might start to get overwhelmed by requests from a multitude of devices, Wi-Fi 6 routers are designed to more effectively keep all those devices up to date with the data they need.
Each of those devices’ speeds won’t necessarily be faster than what they can reach today on a high-quality network, but they’re more likely to maintain those top speeds even in busier environments. You can imagine this being useful in a home where one person is streaming Netflix, another is playing a game, someone else is video chatting, and a whole bunch of smart gadgets — a door lock, temperature sensors, light switches, and so on — are all checking in at once. The top speeds of those devices won’t necessarily be boosted, but the speeds you see in typical, daily use likely will get an upgrade. Exactly how fast that upgrade is, though, will depend on how many devices are on your network and just how demanding those devices are.
What makes WiFi 6 Faster?
There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 upgrades it. The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then the next, and the next. Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. Wi-Fi 6 will allow devices to communicate with up to eight.
You can think of adding MU-MIMO connections like adding delivery trucks to a fleet, says Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an internationally backed tech-industry group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi. “You can send each of those trucks in different directions to different customers,” Robinson says. “Before, you had four trucks to fill with goods and send to four customers. With Wi-Fi 6, you now have eight trucks.” The other new technology, OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
Extending the truck metaphor, Robinson says that OFDMA essentially allows one truck to carry goods to be delivered to multiple locations. “With OFDMA, the network can look at a truck, see ‘I’m only allocating 75 percent of that truck and this other customer is kind of on the way,’” and then fill up that remaining space with a delivery for the second customer, he says. In practice, this is all used to get more out of every transmission that carries a Wi-Fi signal from a router to your device.