It's been a busy couple of weeks for mesh networking. First came Amazon-owned Eero, which lifted the curtain on a new, Alexa-friendly mesh router system that's half the price of the company's previous system. Then came Google, with a new Nest Wifi mesh system that adds in voice-activated Google Assistant smarts. Meanwhile, names like Netgear Orbi are refreshing their mesh offerings just in time for the holidays -- and across the board, prices are as competitive as they've ever been.
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But none of those systems I just mentioned supports 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. That's the speedy, next-gen version of Wi-Fi that promises top speeds about 35% faster than before. It also offers dramatic improvements to performance in crowded, congested environments with lots of devices and people trying to connect at once.
That's a compelling pitch, and marquee client devices such as the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10 are already on board, along with a host of high-end Wi-Fi 6 routers you can buy right now. So what's stopping Amazon and Google?
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Early days in a new era
Along with the faster top speeds, the key benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that it's a much more efficient form of Wi-Fi. Not only can a Wi-Fi 6 router send more data with each transmission -- it can also deliver that data to more devices at once. A lot more devices at once.
"So, think about transportation hubs, where you might be sitting at a gate in an airport and there are hundreds of people connected to Wi-Fi while they're waiting for the flight to board," said Kevin Robinson, VP of Marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance. "Wi-Fi 6 is going to handle those scenarios exceptionally well."
But Robinson adds that the benefits aren't just limited to crowded public spaces like that.
"Increasingly, in the home, you're really seeing what, a number of years ago, would have been considered a 'dense deployment,'" he says, pointing to smart homes with dozens of connected devices, as well as people living in crowded urban spaces surrounded by neighboring Wi-Fi networks all transmitting on the same spectrum.
"Wi-Fi 6 is really going to excel in those environments as well," Robinson says.
Google's Sanjay Noronha, Product Lead on Nest Wifi, agreed that public Wi-Fi 6 networks have a lot to offer. But he also threw some cold water on the idea that Wi-Fi 6 will make an immediate impact in people's homes.
"Let's say you've got just one phone at home, like you've bought the latest Samsung phone or iPhone or something like that," he said. "That device is not going to see much of a benefit being on a Wi-Fi 6 network unless there are other Wi-Fi 6 devices in the network so that the bandwidth can be shared more effectively."
In other words, you'll need a whole house full of new Wi-Fi 6 gadgets before a new Wi-Fi 6 router will make much of a noticeable difference. Noronha said he doesn't foresee that sort of tipping point in device sales happening until 2022.
A question of cost
With a few exceptions, most of today's Wi-Fi 6 routers are expensive -- or as Noronha put it, "out of reach" for most consumers. For instance, a Wi-Fi 6 version of the Netgear Orbi mesh system is due out later this month. It'll cost $700.
That bucks a bigger trend in the mesh category, where projections of significant growth in mesh market share have helped to spur competition and bring costs down. Across the board, manufacturers seem to be positioning themselves to catch a wave.
That includes Amazon-owned Eero. Up until last month, its chief offerings were a mesh Eero system with two beacons for $399 and a three-beacon Eero Pro system for $499. Now, the new Eero flagship is a three-beacon Wi-Fi 5 system that costs $249.
"We think this is a huge opportunity to get fast, reliable, secure Wi-Fi into way more homes," said Nick Weaver, Eero cofounder and CEO, calling the $249 price tag a "slam dunk" for consumers.
As for Wi-Fi 6, Weaver told me that it's currently better suited for busy environments like office spaces.
"AX is absolutely on the horizon, but we want to make sure it hits the performance, the reliability and the price point that consumers deserve," Weaver says.
It's definitely early for Wi-Fi 6, and some might argue that the standard is too far ahead of the real-world speeds that most of us have to live with. For example, while we've seen wireless Wi-Fi 6 transfer rates as fast as 1,500 Mbps or more in our test lab, most Americans are lucky to get speeds much faster than 100 Mbps from their internet service provider -- and there's nothing a Wi-Fi 6 router can do to speed up a slow connection like that.
Still, there's more to your internet connection than fetching data from the cloud according to your ISP's speed limit. Jesse Burke, a Qualcomm staff manager for marketing, points out that mesh networks need to pass lots of data from node to node as they relay your home's internet connection around your house.
"When you apply Wi-Fi 6 into that model, you start getting into kind of mind-blowing possibilities," he told me during a recent call. "Things like -- if I'm paying my ISP for 500 megabits per second, I can actually deliver 500 megabits per second to every single corner of my home."
Meet the Wi-Fi 6 routers that support 802.11axSee all photos
Others in the industry see other potential side benefits to Wi-Fi 6. One new feature called Target Wake Time allows Wi-Fi 6 routers to put devices on a schedule that keeps them from interfering with each other as they ping the router to stay connected to the network. That could be a potential IoT game-changer, says Todd Nightingale, SVP and General Manager at Cisco Meraki.
"The difference between waking up 100 times per second, which in large part was the default up until now, and waking up once a second... That's a huge, huge amount of battery life," Nightingale said. "And what that means is that Wi-Fi networks can start to become the de facto network that serves everything in a very, very power-conscious way."
Google and Amazon won't be able to leverage that sort of potential into their product pitches, but both seem confident in their strategies. At Amazon, Eero's Nick Weaver reiterated the company's focus on performance, reliability and price, the latter of which seemed to be the main sticking point with regards to Wi-Fi 6.
"We're never going to be the first to launch a brand new technology unless it hits those criteria," he added.