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 just starting to arrive this year, and there’s a good chance it’ll be inside your next phone or laptop. Here’s what you should expect once it arrives.
WHAT IS WI-FI 6?
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.
HOW FAST IS IT?
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.
WI-FI’S WEIRD NAMING SCHEME:
Until recently, Wi-Fi generations were referred to by an arcane naming scheme that required you to understand whether 802.11n was faster than 802.11ac, and whether 802.11ac was faster than 802.11af, and whether any of those names were just made up nonsense. (Answer: sort of.)
To fix that, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to rename Wi-Fi generations with simple version numbers. So the current generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac, turned into Wi-Fi 5. This new generation, previously called 802.11ax, is now Wi-Fi 6.
You probably won’t hear the Wi-Fi 5 name used very much since it’s been around for five years and just got that name in October 2018. For Wi-Fi 6, you might see the 802.11ax name here and there, but companies largely seem to be on board with using the simplified naming scheme.
WI-FI 6 ISN’T ABOUT TOP SPEEDS
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.
OKAY, SO HOW FAST IS EACH DEVICE?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here.
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.
HOW DO I GET WI-FI 6?
You’ll need to buy new devices.
Wi-Fi generations rely on new hardware, not just software updates, so you’ll need to buy new phones, laptops, and so on to get the new version of Wi-Fi.
To be clear: this is not something you’ll want to run out to the store and buy a new laptop just to get. It’s not that game-changing of an update for any one device.
A WI-FI 6 ROUTER IS REQUIRED
Instead, new devices will start coming with Wi-Fi 6 by default. As you replace your phone, laptop, and game consoles over the next five years, you’ll bring home new ones that include the latest version of Wi-Fi.
There is one thing you will have to make a point of going out and buying, though: a new router. If your router doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, you won’t see any benefits, no matter how many Wi-Fi 6 devices you bring home. (You could actually see a benefit, though, connecting Wi-Fi 5 gadgets to a Wi-Fi 6 router, because the router may be capable of communicating with more devices at once.)
Again, this isn’t something worth rushing out and buying. But if your home is packed with Wi-Fi-connected smart devices, and things start to get sluggish in a couple years, a Wi-Fi 6 router may be able to meaningfully help.
WHAT MAKES WI-FI 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.
WI-FI 6 CAN ALSO IMPROVE BATTERY LIFE
Another new technology in Wi-Fi 6 allows devices to plan out communications with a router, reducing the amount of time they need to keep their antennas powered on to transmit and search for signals. That means less drain on batteries and improved battery life in turn.
This is all possible because of a feature called Target Wake Time, which lets routers schedule check-in times with devices.
It isn’t going to be helpful across the board, though. Your laptop needs constant internet access, so it’s unlikely to make heavy use of this feature (except, perhaps, when it moves into a sleep state).
Instead, this feature is meant more for smaller, already low-power Wi-Fi devices that just need to update their status every now and then. (Think small sensors placed around a home to monitor things like leaks or smart home devices that sit unused most of the day.)
WI-FI 6 ALSO MEANS BETTER SECURITY
Last year, Wi-Fi started getting its biggest security update in a decade, with a new security protocol called WPA3. WPA3 makes it harder for hackers to crack passwords by constantly guessing them, and it makes some data less useful even if hackers manage to obtain it.
Current devices and routers can support WPA3, but it’s optional. For a Wi-Fi 6 device to receive certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPA3 is required, so most Wi-Fi 6 devices are likely to include the stronger security once the certification program launches.
WI-FI 6 IS JUST GETTING STARTED
Devices supporting Wi-Fi 6 are just starting to trickle out. You can already buy Wi-Fi 6 routers, but so far, they’re expensive high-end devices. A handful of laptops include the new generation of Wi-Fi, too, but it’s not widespread just yet.
Wi-Fi 6 will start arriving on high-end phones this year, though. Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855, includes support for Wi-Fi 6, and it’s destined for the next wave of top-of-the-line phones. The Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee that a phone will have Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a good sign: Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first phones with the new processor, and it supports the newest generation of Wi-Fi.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 is likely to become even more common next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program this fall, which guarantees compatibility across Wi-Fi devices. Devices don’t need to pass that certification, but its launch will signify that the industry is ready for Wi-Fi 6’s arrival.