WiFi 6 Explained: Should you switch?

WiFi 6 is the latest standard of WiFi technology and a direct successor to the Wi-Fi 5. 

It comes with a lot of new features and improvements over WiFi 5.

In this article, we are going to discuss this technology in-depth and try to get a better overview of the things that matter the most. We are going to limit our discussion to only the three most recent WiFi standards.

WiFi is a family of wireless networking protocols first made available to consumers in the late 1990s. It has been over 20 years since the first WiFi device was released for commercial use.

The technology was known for a while before it was registered as a trademark by the WiFi Alliance, a non-profit organization that now governs the Wi-Fi standard and certifies the compatibility of the devices with specific interoperability standards.

IEEE 802.11 is the name of the standard on which WiFi is based on.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is an international organization that is famous for the development of various technical standards related to the fields of electrical, electronics, and computer engineering. IEEE 802.11 specifies Media Access Control (MAC) and physical layer protocols for designing a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN). 

IEEE 802.11 is a part of the IEEE 802 standard which deals with Local Area Networks (LAN). The IEEE 802 standard specifically lays out the guidelines for setting up the physical and data link layers of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model for networking. 

    Things that didn’t change with WiFi 6

WiFi 6 is considered the most significant update to the standard since its inception. There are a lot of things that changed in this new standard.

The changes and all the new stuff will be discussed in the next section of the article, but first, we will list out the things which WiFi 6 carried from its predecessor.

Backward compatibility with previous generations

The WiFi 6 is backward compatible with Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 devices. This essentially means is that you can bring in your old appliances that work on WiFi 4 or the WiFi 5 standard and they won’t even notice the difference. 

WiFi clients are the devices that connect to the access point for internet connection. Older devices that work on last generation standard can connect to WiFi 6 access points and still work fine thanks to the backward compatible nature of new-generation devices. 

The case is very similar to how the present generation USB standard works. The latest generation of USB has a lot of new features, but it is entirely backward compatible with older generation USB devices. 

Similar antenna design on client-side

The physical design of the antenna on the client-side has remained more or less the same through all these years and continuing this trend is Wi-Fi 6. The client devices still have a similar design of antennas, but it does not mean that the client devices designed for WiFi 4 or 5 can take the benefits of WiFi 6 access points.

Same deployment

This is one department where things have remained pretty similar. Much like the Wi-Fi 4 or the Wi-Fi 5 devices, the Wi-Fi 6 devices have to be deployed in a very similar way. Though the performance of newer devices is better, the things that you need to take care of still include keeping the access point near the devices, keeping it in an open area, and a lot more.

    Things that changed with Wi-Fi 6

Here we are going to discuss some of the things that are new in WiFi 6. There have been several improvements in existing technologies, and we are going to have a look at some of the most significant changes to them.

Name

Just like every other upgrade, WiFi 6 comes with a new name. The name of the IEEE standard has changed too. Here is a list of names of IEEE standards by which some recent generations of WiFi are identified.

  • WiFi 4: IEEE 802.11n
  • WiFi 5: IEEE 802.11ac
  • WiFi 6: IEEE 802.11ax

8X8 Multi-User- Multi Input Multi Output (MU-MIMO) 

MU-MIMO is a technology that lets a WiFi router connect to multiple devices at the same time and serve their requests. This significantly improves the speed of devices connected to the network.

The new Wi-Fi 6 features 8×8 MU-MIMO streams for upload and download, whereas the previous generation standard had only 4 MU-MIMO streams. WiFi 4 had a single user MIMO which allowed only a single device to connect to its network at a time.

The improvement is also in the uplink capabilities as the Wi-Fi 6 supports eight downlinks and eight uplink MU-MIMO which means it can serve eight users each for upload and download. 

I can’t help but feel like that 8x upload MU-MIMO is a gimmick considering that no personal WiFi would have eight channels that are trying to upload something at the same time. Downlink, on the other hand, is what we need considering that the number of internet-connected and Internet of Things (IoT) devices is increasing with each passing day. 

Less interference with Base Service Station (BSS) Coloring: 

BSS Coloring is a technique used by the latest WiFi 6 based access points which let them handle more cluttered and dense environments like airports, railway stations, urban apartments, and subways better. The aim is to reduce the amount of interference due to other networks present in the area. 

What this means for home users is that their Wi-Fi network is now less susceptible to mixing up with your neighbor’s network. Having BSS coloring enabled, the users can boost the internet speed that they might have lost earlier to external interferences. BSS coloring also reduces the number of access points required to set up a WiFi network.

Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access

WiFi 6 borrows this innovation from cellular networks. Using OFDMA, Wi-Fi 6 enabled routers can split their channel bands. OFDMA allows the bands ranging from 20 MHz to 160 Mhz to be divided into multiple chunks of up to 78 sub-channels and assign them individually to different client devices.

To get all of this to work done, the access points have improved significantly. WiFi 6 based clients exercise a lot more control over their client devices. The behavior of client devices is under the control of access points up to a great extent.

8×8 MU-MIMO, BSS Coloring, and OFDMA together provide around four times the larger capacity to the Wi-Fi 6 networks to handle more number of devices simultaneously. The new Wi-Fi router based on WiFi 6 standard can handle a lot more devices that you throw at it.

Better scheduling with improved TWT (Target Wake Time)

WiFi clients earlier used to keep checking on the network. They kept listening over the network all the time; this unnecessarily increased power consumption and wasted bandwidth. Using an improved TWT implementation, WiFi 6 access point can send the WiFi 6 clients to sleep whenever no activity is required. 

In practice what this means is that the devices are allocated a specific period over at which they can communicate. Having a fixed waiting time for every device means there is no collision of data packets, ultimately leading to improved latencies. 

The Scheduling wake-up times are crucial for smaller low power embedded systems that run off a battery. Saving even a small amount of power in the order of mW can increase their on-time significantly.

Optimised Beam Forming

Beamforming is a technology that is used to reduce the electromagnetic interferences in devices working on the WiFi network. If implemented correctly, beamforming can help manufacturers direct the WiFi waves to where they need to go, thereby reducing the clutter in the network. 

By focusing the signals in a specific direction (towards the client), the signal reception can be significantly improved. This technology is also used in 5G networks.

Beamforming has been present in our WiFi devices for more than a decade now. It was present in Wi-Fi 4 too, but it was not until Wi-Fi 5, it was ultimately implemented. It was made compulsory on WiFi 5 devices with the introduction of MU-MIMO. Wi-Fi 5 supported four antennas while the new Wi-Fi 6 supports 8.

Better Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM)

Any analog signal has three characteristics, amplitude, frequency, and quadrature (phase). QAM is a modulation technique in which the amplitude and quadrature of a signal are varied. 

In this article, we are going to avoid getting into a technical discussion about the modulation schemes because that is something that only a small fraction of communication engineers may be able to comprehend. 

For the rest of us, 1024 QAM is a technique that lets WiFi routers pack more data in a smaller space. The jump from 256 QAM (in WiFi 5) to 1024 QAM (in WiFi 6) improves the raw speeds of the new devices by around 25%.

Dynamic Fragmentation

WiFi 5 breaks data into small chunks of the same size but WiFi 6 can break data into little pieces of different sizes. This is the concept behind dynamic fragmentation. Thanks to the variable size of the data packets, the performance of WiFi 6 is improved further.

Mandatory WiFi Protected Access (WPA)

The latest standard of Wi-Fi security certification: WPA 3 is mandatory for all WiFi 6 compliant devices which is a nice step from the security point of view. WPA 3 was developed by the WiFi alliance to improvise the encryption and user authentication on newer wireless networks.

Here is a table which summarises our discussion about the three most recent WiFi standards.

Wi-Fi 4 Wi-Fi 5 Wi-Fi 6
IEEE standard name IEEE 802.11n IEEE 802.11au IEEE 802.11ax
Year of release 2009 2013 2019
Frequency band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 5 GHz 2.4 GHz & 5 GHz and spanning 1 GHz – 6 GHz with the WiFi 6E
Antennas SU-MIMO 4×4 MU-MIMO 8×8 MU-MIMO
Highest modulation 64 QAM 256 QAM 1024 QAM
Data transfer rates Up to 150 Mb/s Up to 3.5 Gb/s Up to 9.6 Gb/s

You can also check out this video by Linus Tech Tips to understand the new WiFi standard better.

    The next big thing: Wi-Fi 6E

The performance of WiFi 6 has the potential to meet the always growing demands of high internet speeds and better connectivity.

The WiFi 6E standard also brings in the new 6 GHz frequency band to the game. But in such a time when most of the devices still not supporting the Wi-Fi 6 standard, it is difficult to expect the WiFi 6E standard to hit the market so soon.

In the next few years, the devices based on WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E will take over. That will happen when more manufacturers start implementing the new technology in their devices. When the number of client devices supporting the WiFi 6 standard increases a little more, we can say that we are indeed ready to welcome the successor to the current WiFi standard. 

Soon, 8K video streaming and lag-free gaming might be a thing. The new WiFi standard sure seems promising and can change the world of wireless networks for good.

There aren’t many smartphones, tablets, or other internet-connected devices available in the market that support the WiFi 6 standard (especially the budget and mid-range devices). However, a lot of networking equipment manufacturing companies have come up with WiFi 6 based routers. 

You can buy a WiFi router that supports the WiFi 6 standard from brands like TP-Link, D-Link, Amped Wireless, Netgear, etc. The pricing starts at $70 and goes all the way up to several hundred dollars.




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