What Is WiFi 6? Explaining WiFi’s Newest Version

A reliable WiFi connection is an important part of our day-to-day activities. Since WiFi's creation in 1997, the number of WiFi users has jumped to at least 3.4 billion as of 2016.  After over two decades of usage, WiFi has reached its fastest and most efficient version yet: 802.11ax, otherwise known as WiFi 6. In this article, we'll explain what it is and why it matters, how WiFi 6 speeds have changed, and how you can use this new version in a WiFi 6 router yourself.

What is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 is the latest version of WiFi, which has been developing for several decades. The first version was numbered 802.11 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) using an engineering numbering system.

As it improved, the number changed. The next and faster variant was labeled 802.11a, the one after it 802.11b, and so forth. Now, the most current version is 802.11ax, or WiFi 6.

A 2020 study revealed that the average American had access to more than ten connected devices in their household. The more devices on a network, the slower the network typically runs; if you’ve ever asked a family member to “get off the WiFi” so that your laptop loads, you’ve experienced this firsthand. WiFi 6 provides a better solution to congested routers with multiple devices. It provides faster speeds, greater flexibility, and more growth opportunities for device networks.

An orange WiFi 6 graphic displaying its name and the WiFi symbol

How does it work?

WiFi 6 works to increase speed and usability. It does so by more effectively prioritizing traffic across channels within a wireless router. This leads to better connections, faster download speeds, and a more enjoyable online experience.

Technically speaking, WiFi 6 improved through the use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Overlapping Basic Service Sets (OBSS). Together, these two help improve connection communication when a greater number of devices are accessing the WiFi simultaneously.

OFDMA subdivides channels and allows for transmissions to multiple devices simultaneously. A laptop, phone, and tablet can all receive different signals in the same transmission window sent from a WiFi 6 router. Instead of a device waiting to receive a signal and data from the router, multiple devices are receiving transmissions at once.

OBSS also helps improve network congestion by making it so that networks can allow new devices onto a channel while simultaneously running traffic from another source. Previously, devices attempting to connect to a network had to wait until there was no noise on the channel; OBSS uses unique network identifiers to increase reliability and speed.

WiFi 6 routers, then, are capable of sending different signals in the same single transmission. This allows one transmission to communicate with multiple devices all at once. It speeds up the process and allowing users to have more devices with the same efficient speeds.

How fast is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 significantly faster than its predecessors; theoretically, it's capable of reaching speeds up to 9.6 gigabytes per second (Gbps). However, note that the speed your wireless network operates at also depends on what your device is capable of. Because this version is fairly new, most devices still are not yet WiFi 6 compatible. Therefore, they can only function at WiFi 5 speeds.

You can get a WiFi 6 router to broadcast faster speeds - WiFi 6 routers still work just as well with devices not yet functioning with the new version - but that won't necessarily help speed the device up. But with newer devices capable of higher speeds, this new version of WiFi greatly enhances the online experience.

WiFi broadcasts at two frequencies: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. WiFi 6 improves both frequencies. This means that in addition to faster speeds, this version is also better at reaching devices through walls or other objects in your home that may obstruct your WiFi signal currently.

Furthermore, if using a WiFi 6e router, users will have a third option for frequency. That option is 6 GHz, which delivers high amounts of data in even shorter distances.

Comparing WiFi 5 vs. WiFi 6

The speed and efficiency of this version of WiFi are what most significantly sets it apart from previous versions. WiFi 6 can handle 9.6 gigabytes per second (Gbps); WiFi 5 maxed out at 3.5 Gbps, a significantly lower amount. A single device would likely not need WiFi that operates at that speed.

However, a higher gigabyte per second cap means more devices work at faster speeds on the router. More importantly, a higher number of WiFi devices will be able to operate at efficient speeds; for example, if your entire family uses a different device on the same router, your phone or laptop won’t be slowed down by the other devices.

WiFi 6 also has the capacity for up to 75% less latency, which means that the time it takes for data to be transferred across the connection has been cut back. It's capable of handling large amounts of network traffic far more efficiently. All devices on the network will be able to operate more efficiently.

This makes wireless signals closer to the speed of hardwired Ethernet cable connections. That gives users much more flexibility in using high-speed WiFi.

Integration

The integration of this new version has already begun, but that doesn’t mean it’s readily available everywhere. As users replace their phones, laptops, and other devices with newer models, WiFi 6 becomes the standard. In order for WiFi 6 to work most efficiently, it requires multiple devices on the same connection level with a WiFi 6 router. Therefore, although it will become mainstream in the next few years, it will take time for users to fully feel the effects of this newer, faster WiFi.