Wi-Fi 6 is Coming – But What Does That Mean?

Wi-Fi is on the brink of a major update: 802.11ax, also known as “WiFi 6”. For devices which include the new standard – and its required hardware), this means big improvements–so long as the network it’s connected to supports it.

To understand what Wi-Fi 6 means for you, let’s look back on how we got to what we have now, and then the challenges WiFi 6 is attempting to overcome, and how it has the potential to change everyone’s mobile lifestyle, both personally and professionally.

In the Beginning

Today we take being instantly and almost constantly connected to the Internet for granted. However, some of us remember a time when it was not like that at all (and cringe when we do so.)

In the early days of the Internet – for those who may not remember – if you wanted to get online you’d walk over to the family computer, wait what seemed like an age while it booted up, then dial-up your ISP to get on the internet. After another minute or so of dialing, beeps and boops, squawks and squeals, culminating in a ball of static and a sometimes a friendly voice telling you that “You’ve got mail!”

Dialup was painfully slow (in the range of 57kbps at its peak), and tied up your phone line all the while. So everyone else in the house got mad with you. If you wanted to listen to music, you’d have to download an .MP3 file – which would take at least 10 minutes for an average song.

The next steps along the way were ISDN, T1, T3, and other types of “always on” connections, but their price and limited availability kept them mostly reserved to schools and businesses.

Laptops were becoming increasingly popular, as were “little” pocket-sized devices called Personal Digital Assistants. The downside to both was their need for a wire to connect to anything. Your PDA could send and receive email, but only via a “sync” process when connected to your computer. Your laptop could only access the Internet when plugged in to an Ethernet cable.

Then all of that changed

It was the late 1990’s and a new technology had just been standardized: 802.11a.

No, it wasn’t a memorable name, but it allowed a person with a laptop or even a PDA to pop in a device about the size of a stack of credit cards, and connect to a “wireless network” at work, school, and some high-end libraries. Wi-Fi was born.

Soon after 802.11b arrived and brought with it faster speeds, but the two versions of Wi-Fi weren’t compatible with each other. You would need an 802.11a card for the office, and an 802.11b card at home. The two standards operated on different frequencies and at different speeds. Eventually, manufacturers built cards which could connect to networks on either standard to help with the confusion and with the cost and inconvenience of needing two cards.

Wireless standards progressed with 802.11g, 802.11n, and finally 802.11ac. To complicate things, some versions of Wi-Fi support 2.4GHz while others support 5GHz. Some support both. There was even an update to 802.11a to add part of the 3.7GHz spectrum, if the device supports it. And now Wi-Fi 6 will be here by the end of the year.

What are the Benefits of Wi-Fi 6?

Just like every new phone when compared to the previous generation, the new one is “faster”, “smaller”, “uses less power”/“longer battery life”, etc Wi-Fi 6 promises to be better in all the following ways:

  • Higher data rates
  • Increased capacity
  • Better performance in environments with many connected devices
  • Improved power efficiency

One of the ways that Wi-Fi 6 is really supposed to make a difference is boosting the efficiency of the ‘Internet of Things’. That means home assistant devices like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home.

It is also something that gaming companies are banking on to help them as both Google and Microsoft prepare to launch ambitious streaming only gaming platforms that will need to be powered by some very efficient Wi-Fi. Finally it should also help businesses who offer Wi-Fi to their customers improve that offering.

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the non-profit overseer of the Wi-Fi world, Wi-Fi 6 will roll out ‘later in 2019’. That will highly likely be towards the very end of the year but we’ll keep you updated here as we learn more.