Tri-band routers to banish patchy wifi

Despite improvements, broadband routers continue to struggle with whole-home coverage – but tri-band routers could be the solution

Wednesday, 5 May, 2021

Technology is in a constant state of evolution and flux, even if it appears to be operating along time-honoured principles.

To the uninitiated, today’s wireless broadband routers function almost identically to their Millennial ancestors.

Yet in reality, wireless connectivity is evolving. And even if you haven’t heard of tri-band routers, there’s a high likelihood they’ll be powering your connectivity in years to come.

Here’s what you need to know.

Tri before you buy

Early wireless routers broadcast solely on the 2.4GHz frequency that’s already used by numerous other devices.

This is a uniquely congested part of the radio spectrum, from baby monitors and car alarms to microwave ovens and Bluetooth headsets.

To combat this congestion, ISPs and router manufacturers began offering dual-band hardware. These broadcast at the traditional 2.4GHz frequency, but also at 5GHz.

That became known as the WiFi 6 standard, or IEEE 802.11ax to its friends.

Higher frequencies cover a smaller radius, making them unsuitable for reaching the garden or attic rooms. However, they can transmit data more quickly, and with less congestion.

Increasing signal transmission to 6GHz further decreases range while increasing speed, and this third band is now being incorporated into a growing number of broadband routers.

It’s part of a revised global standard called WiFi 6E – or IEEE 802.11ax-2021.

We’ll stick to calling it WiFi 6E.

Winning the space race

The 6GHz band quadruples the airwave space available for routers and smart devices compared to a dual-band router, which should reduce both congestion and interference.

Crucially, it’ll also increase transmission speeds.

With gigabit broadband now being installed in new homes up and down the UK, there was a pressing need to develop wireless protocols which could match these data transfer speeds.

And sure enough, 6GHz is capable of transmitting data at one gigabit per second.

Crucially for many data-intensive online experiences, it also reduces latency to less than one millisecond. That should ensure smoother gaming, streaming and video calling.

Sounds good. Can I have it?

The simple answer is ‘not yet’.

If your broadband is supplied via the Openreach network, you should be able to swap your ISP’s wireless router for a more powerful privately purchased WiFi 6E-compatible model.

Proprietary full fibre cable networks transmit data slightly differently, which is why you’ll need to retain their router – though you could plug a 6E model into it.

The new router would conduct the job of distributing wireless data around the home, turning the proprietary hardware into a bridge.

The reduced distance of 6GHz data transfers means tri-band routers will continue to need 2.4GHz to cover larger homes and gardens, as 6GHz signals are prone to being blocked.

Finally, there’s an issue in that most contemporary hardware isn’t 6E compatible yet. This is a protocol for the future, rather than one improving the here and now.

However, its improvements will be significant – and long-lasting.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!