Is Wi-Fi 6 Worth the Upgrade? Here’s What You Need to Know
If you're at all plugged into the tech world, then you've already heard the hype about Wi-Fi 6, the latest wireless standard to hit the market. And if you're wondering if your business needs to upgrade to keep up in the ever-evolving world of wireless (no internet involved) read on to learn more.
By the way, all new devices already come with Wi-Fi 6, in other words this is inevitable.
The Meaning of "Wi-Fi 6"
First off, you may be curious about what "Wi-Fi 6" actually is. Launched in 2019 and officially adopted as a wireless standard by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2020, Wi-Fi 6 (known by the IEEE name, "802.11ax") is the successor to the previous wireless standard, Wi-Fi 5 (known by the IEEE name, "802.11ac"), which has been around since 2014.
Similar to 5G for cellular technology, Wi-Fi 6 (named such by the Wi-Fi Alliance) represents the latest achievement in wireless standard technologies. Each successive generation of Wi-Fi is intended to bring faster speeds, efficiency, and overall performance to the field of wireless local-area networks (WLANs). With over 22 billion devices connecting to the Internet through WLANs, ongoing improvements in Wi-Fi standards are essential for both businesses and private citizens.
Wi-Fi 6 utilizes multiple technologies that increase efficiency and speed. For instance, while the fastest Wi-Fi 5 speed boasted a maximum theoretical throughput (i.e. the speed with which a channel can deliver a message containing data) of 3.5 Gbps, Wi-Fi 6 has cranked that metric up to an even more impressive 9.6 Gbps. It should be noted that real-world speeds tend to be less than the advertised theoretical throughput, however.
In addition to faster speeds, Wi-Fi 6 also offers improved security protocols compared to the Wi-Fi 5 standard. These include the WPA3 security standard, which uses GCMP-256 encryption (versus the 128-bit encryption used by Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4).
Many of this latest Wi-Fi generation's increased speed and security features are well-suited for public Wi-Fi networks, such as those hosted by restaurants and other businesses, apartment complexes, and other areas that offer public access to a Wi-Fi network.
Essential Wi-Fi 6 Terms to Know
Before we get too far into the weeds in this discussion of the benefits of this latest wireless standard, we should explain some of the key terms that get thrown around regarding this new wireless standard.
For starters, much of the increased speed that Wi-Fi 6 devices offer their users versus previous generations is thanks to MU-MIMO technology, which stands for, "Multi-User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output."
The MU-MIMO technology allows multiple users to hop onto a wireless network at the same time, rather than having them transfer data in a sequential (i.e. one after another) order. This means multiple connected users can share their bandwidth more evenly than with previous generations of Wi-Fi.
Another key term behind the power of Wi-Fi 6 is the OFDMA technology, which stands for, "Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access." In less technical language, OFDMA means that up to 30 users can share a channel simultaneously, which reduces latency at the same time that the network's total capacity is improved.
For example, two people on the same network who are performing different functions (e.g. checking the Internet vs. streaming a TV show) will be assigned different channels for their respective devices, freeing up bandwidth through greater efficiency.
Finally, Wi-Fi 6 uses transmit beamforming router technology to increase the speed and range of the wireless network, as well as maximize the battery life of Internet-connected mobile devices through Target Wake Time (TWT; sometimes referred to as "Target Wait Time"), which enables devices to send and receive wireless data based on typical "wake-up" times.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6
As we mentioned above, Wi-Fi 6 is quite faster than the Wi-Fi 5 standard. For instance, the best Wi-Fi 5 devices use quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) up to 256-QAM, whereas Wi-Fi devices of the next generation use 1024-QAM. This produces an exponentially greater uptick in the amount of data that can be transmitted through a single channel compared to what Wi-Fi 5 is capable of.
Apart from speed, Wi-Fi 6 is more energy-efficient than Wi-Fi 5 because the earlier generation lacks the Target Wake Time technology of Wi-Fi 6. Instead of broadcasting a message to wireless devices only after a certain "wake-up" time, Wi-Fi 5 routers transmit this message throughout the day. In doing so, your smartphone, computer, and other wireless devices have their battery drained that much faster by being connected to a Wi-Fi 5 router.
We've already discussed Wi-Fi 6's superior security over Wi-Fi 5 in the form of the improved WPA3 security protocol. Apart from the higher level of encryption compared to Wi-Fi 5 and older versions, Wi-Fi 6 also has the advantages of password sharing through NFC and QR codes, protection against data decryption in the event of a compromised password, and other cybersecurity features that Wi-Fi 5 simply lacks.
Is Wi-Fi 7 Worth the Wait?
After all this talk about the leaps and bounds that Wi-Fi 6 has made versus Wi-Fi 5 technology, you may be thinking it would be a smarter idea to wait for even more benefits once the Wi-Fi 7 standard has been adopted and devices that have been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance start coming out.
It is true that Wi-Fi 7 looks very promising in terms of the reliability and stability it will offer to your Internet connection. Plus, it is expected to offer about four times the throughput of Wi-Fi 6 and greater modulation at a level of 4096-QAM. However, the upcoming standard is not expected to be finalized until 2024, so much of your decision to wait or upgrade now will likely depend on what your current wireless needs are.
If you're already tearing your hair out about slow Internet speeds, clogged bandwidth, or network security worries, then pulling the trigger and upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 is probably the best choice you can make. If, on the other hand, you're perfectly content with your current speeds and security protocols, then holding out for Wi-Fi 7 might be the better option.
Just bear in mind that as with most new technologies, the earliest professional Wi-Fi 7-enabled routers to hit the market are probably going to cost a bundle. If you decide to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 in the present, on the other hand, an assortment of budget-friendly routers is already at your disposal.
How to Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6
If you've weighed the factors and decided that your business Internet plan needs an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, then there are a few things you need to know in order to take this next step toward greater wireless speed and security.
The first thing to determine is if you have the correct cabling. Many older buildings were cabled with a network cable called CAT5. This will not work to carry the speeds for the new Wi-Fi 6 devices. CAT5e and CAT6 cables are better, but to achieve the maximum data throughput these cables would need to be replaced with CAT6a cables that allow for a 10 gigabit data throughput.
To establish a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, you'll of course need next-gen Wireless Access Point or WAP that is enabled for this latest standard. Depending on the area that you need your network to cover (especially if yours is a sizable business), you might want to skip buying a single device in favor of investing in a mesh system.
A system of Wi-Fi 6 mesh networks entails multiple Wi-Fi devices working in tandem to ensure adequate Wi-Fi 6 signal coverage across the entire space.
Before you even consider upgrading your WAP , check to see if you already have devices that are Wi-Fi 6-enabled according to the Wi-Fi Alliance's certification program. You won't see any increase in speed or other connectivity factors if you access a Wi-Fi 6 network on a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or other device that is only enabled for Wi-Fi 5 or even Wi-Fi 4!
Fortunately, Wi-Fi 6 WAPS are backward compatible, so you can still access the network using Wi-Fi 5 devices, such as an older generation of laptops or cell phones. You'll just be seeing the same speeds as if you were using current-gen Wi-Fi 5 WAPS , instead of the higher throughput and more advanced security protocols that are available on a Wi-Fi 6 network.
You can upgrade in a piecemeal fashion, but it takes careful planning. Users will experience varying connection speeds as they move from the new technology to the old. Basically, your older Wi-Fi becomes the bottleneck to peoples’ productivity.
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