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....
Lets Dig in
What is WIFI 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.
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.
How Do I get WIFI 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 anyone 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 of years, a Wi-Fi 6 router may be able to meaningfully help.
What Makes it Faster?
There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple inputs, multiple outputs,” 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.