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What is Wi-Fi 6? How it works, what it does and what’s coming next

wi-fi 6 lit up in an earth light what is wi-fi 6

We’ve got everything you need to know about Wi-Fi 6 including performance, compatibility and how it can speed up your network

Wi-Fi 6 is the sixth generation of Wi-Fi technology. Its official name is 802.11ax and this iteration follows on from 802.11ac, 802.11n and 802.11g, but given how complicated and confusing these names are, the Wi-Fi Alliance has rebranded them.

What’s in a name?

Wi-Fi 6 is used to describe devices that support 802.11ax technology; Wi-Fi 5 is the new name for 802.11ac technology; Wi-Fi 4 is used to identify devices that support 802.11n technology and so on. Wi-Fi 6 was followed by Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 (see below).

With the launch of each of these previous iterations, the Wi-Fi Alliance and manufacturers focused largely on increasing speed without changing the fundamentals of how a Wi-Fi network works. Wi-Fi 6 overhauled this process to not only boost speed, but also improve efficiency, extend range, enhance security and increase the number of devices connected to a network.

These improvements not only make browsing and downloading faster, they promise to boost the battery life of mobile phones, tablets and other devices, and save energy and money. The technology takes advantage of similar advances being introduced by 5G.

In other words, Wi-Fi 6 was the start of the next generation of Wi-Fi, later improved on with Wi-Fi 6E, and now virtually perfected with Wi-Fi 7. To understand why Wi-Fi 6 was so revolutionary, it’s worth briefly explaining how previous Wi-Fi networks operate.

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Wi-Fi 6 and the problem with current Wi-Fi networks

Wi-Fi networks consist of devices connected to an access point. These devices include mobile phones and tablets but also connected TVs, smart light bulbs, baby monitors and any other Internet of Things (or smart) product. Each of these devices get their data from this access point and, in turn, send data back. Data is sent over channels, and subchannels, which were set up to streamline and manage the process.

The problem with current Wi-Fi technology is that these access points can only send data to one device at a time, so the other devices have to sit and wait their turn. Then, when the access point is receiving data, it has to stop sending data.

On a home Wi-Fi network, you may not notice these delays because the number of devices is relatively small and the previous Wi-Fi standard – 802.11ac or Wi-Fi 5 – was designed to speed up this relay process. Yet on public networks, where access points are sharing and receiving data for dozens, if not hundreds, of devices, the system almost grinds to a halt. Plus, even with the enhanced speeds seen in Wi-Fi 5, the whole network infrastructure is still incredibly inefficient.

Linksys Velop Pro 6E - front what is wi-fi 6

This is because not only does the access point send data in stages, it has to send the whole channel, including its subchannels, to each device individually. Even if that device only needs a tiny bit of bandwidth, the access point sends it all, meaning that channel and bandwidth can’t be used by any other device while it’s been sent and received by one of them.

You can think of a traditional Wi-Fi network as being like a motorway, with the cars as data. Vehicles can only travel in one direction and even though they may be able to change lanes, their ultimate direction of travel and destination are the same. The first versions of Wi-Fi had “narrow lanes” so few cars (data packets) could travel on them. As standards improved, the “road” was widened to increase the number of vehicles – the bandwidth – and lanes were put in to help handle this flow of cars (data). However, as more cars joined, the roads became congested.

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How does Wi-Fi 6 make things faster?

Wi-Fi 6 solves this congestion problem by using access points that can send data to multiple devices, all at once. It works out how much bandwidth is needed for a single task and reserves that amount of bandwidth for that single device, while simultaneously doing the same for every other device it’s connected to. For example, a 4K video requires much more bandwidth than sending a tweet, so the larger amount of data is reserved and sent to the streaming device, and a smaller packet is sent to Twitter, without one slowing down the other.

Wi-Fi 6 technology also has a feature called “Target Wake Time” in which Wi-Fi radios built into devices only need to be on when they’re sending or receiving data. On older devices, if a radio “went to sleep”, it could lose its connection to the access point. With Wi-Fi 6, the access point “wakes up” the radio when it’s needed before this radio powers down again. Without the Wi-Fi radio being permanently awake and using power, this seemingly small change significantly boosts battery life on Wi-Fi 6-enabled devices like mobile phones.

It’s also a feature that reduces the number of plugged-in devices needed, which saves money on energy bills. This will be a relatively minor saving in homes, but will represent vast savings in hospitals, factories and on a global scale, where milliwatts all add up.

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How much faster is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is capable of reaching speeds of 9.6Gbits/sec, compared to 3.5Gbits/sec on Wi-Fi 5. However, both of these speeds are theoretical maximums and are rarely – if ever – achieved in real-world tests. As a rule of thumb, Wi-Fi 6 is around 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac, which averages around 1.2Gbits/sec under real-world conditions.

What devices are compatible with Wi-Fi 6?

Devices that are “Wi-Fi 6 Certified” are fairly common and you should expect modern mobile phones, laptops and other bandwidth hungry devices to come with either Wi-Fi 6 or its later, improved version, Wi-Fi 6E.

Wi-Fi 6E mainly extends Wi-Fi 6 into the 6GHz frequency range, adding onto the established 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges used by Wi-Fi 6 and previous standards. It’s not a full generational leap like Wi-Fi 7 (see below), but can offer substantial speed improvements in some cases.

what is wi-fi 6 - router at work with man in background on laptop

Netgear was one of the first brands to sell a range of Wi-Fi 6 routers, under its Nighthawk AX brand and other manufacturers, including Asus and TP-Link have also joined the roster – making it simple to buy these routers with just a few clicks in the online store of your choice.

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Will I need to upgrade my devices to work with Wi-Fi 6?

All Wi-Fi 6 devices, and routers, are backwards compatible meaning they will work with older Wi-Fi standards, and older Wi-Fi devices will be able to connect to these new routers. However, only Wi-Fi 6 devices will benefit from the faster speeds of this new technology.

Another big plus of this new technology is that freeing up bandwidth and more efficiently sending data to Wi-Fi 6 devices will have a positive knock-on effect to the rest of the network. It will clear the air, so to speak, for those devices, making more bandwidth available to older devices on your network, helping to ease congestion and boost speeds. So even if you only have a few Wi-Fi 6 devices, it’s well worth upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router if it’s time for a new router or router mesh system.

If you’re in the market for a new router, then you’ll definitely want to see our roundup of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers. While we don’t yet recommend that anyone buy Wi-Fi 7 network gear yet, if you aren’t in the market for a new router, you’ll want to read our Wi-Fi 7 explainer to decide whether you should wait for the latest and greatest Wi-Fi standard to become more affordable.

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