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Why WiFi 6 is a game-changer for home broadband

Wednesday, 18 March, 2020

Until the late 1990s, home internet connectivity was only available down a phone line, through a modem and via a desktop or laptop computer.

The seeds of today’s wireless home were sown in 1997, when a committee with the rather unpromising name of 802.11 developed a set of standards for wireless local area networks.

Following the introduction of WiFi in 1999, router devices could transmit data wirelessly at speeds of two megabytes per second.

And so began the evolution of WiFi, through different generations and across two frequencies – the congested 2.4GHz bandwidth and the less commonly-used 5GHz frequency.

Today, the sixth generation of WiFi technology is with us.

Version numbers have retrospectively been introduced, so the previous-generation 802.11ac standard is now known as WiFi 5.

(The latest version’s official name is 802.11ax.)

But what improvements does WiFi 6 bring compared to previous generations of wireless technology, and what impact is this having around our homes?

Economies of scale

While WiFi has been gradually evolving, our uses for it have been changing as well.

The last decade saw meteoric growth in wireless device usage around the home, from smart speakers and security systems to our omnipresent phones and tablets.

One of WiFi 6’s key advantages is its ability to provide stable connectivity to multiple devices simultaneously.

It does this by splitting each wireless channel into individual subchannels, each capable of simultaneously transmitting data streams to and from specific devices.

That minimises crosstalk interference, and prevents WiFi bogging down during periods of heavy traffic. Buffering and latency are reduced, with attendant benefits for end users.

This is also the first generation of WiFi that allows multiple devices to communicate back and forth simultaneously, rather than one-way-then-the-other communications.

It offers much faster data transfer speeds – a maximum of 9.6 Gbps compares favourably to the 6.9 Gbps achievable from the best WiFi 5 devices.

This is thanks to technical wizardry like more efficient data encoding, even across the 2.4GHz network (which remains better at transmitting data through solid walls or objects).

Another benefit of the latest WiFi standard is improved device battery life. Access points can tell devices when to turn off WiFi communications, helping them to conserve power.

And finally, security is enhanced by the requirement for WiFi 6-certified devices to offer the latest WPA3 security protocol, which makes data more secure and harder to hack into.

I’m sold. How do I get it?

If your existing device isn’t already compatible, you’ll need to replace your existing broadband router.

Any router will distribute any ISP’s data around the home without issue, so you don’t need to keep using the free device your provider posted out at the start of your contract.

These mass-produced routers tend to lack signal-boosting technologies like external aerials, which help to push data even further and more reliably.

Instead, look for wireless routers bearing a WiFi 6 Certified logo – typically three quarter-circles with a number 6 beside them.

Bear in mind that individual devices which only support WiFi 5 won’t receive the benefits of 6, in the same way a 4G phone won’t be able to recognise or identify 5G data transfers.

It’s worth investigating whether smartphones, computers, games consoles and other domestic hardware is compatible before purchasing it.

After all, WiFi 5 is very much obsolete technology now. And why accept slower internet connections than you have to?

Neil Cumins author picture

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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!

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