Wi-Fi 6 is making its big debut this year, but summing up the potential impact is a bit more complicated than saying it will make your Wi-Fi network faster. Yes, things are going to be speedier than before -- but beyond basics like speed and range, what's really key about Wi-Fi 6 is how it will reshape the way routers handle in our homes and lives.
If you're looking for some basic answers about how that'll work, and perhaps a semi-convoluted comparison or two to help you wrap your head around all of it, then you've come to right post.
Let's start with the basics -- what is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax if you want to be technical about it, is the newest version of the 802.11 standard for wireless network transmissions that people commonly call Wi-Fi. It's a backwards-compatible upgrade over the previous version of the Wi-Fi standard, which is called 802.11ac.
Wi-Fi 6 isn't a new means of connecting to the internet like fiber -- rather, it's an upgraded standard that compatible devices, particularly routers, can take advantage of to transmit Wi-Fi signals more efficiently.
Wi-Fi 6? Did I miss the other 5?
No, the names were just clunky, and more or less meaningless to most people who don't work with wireless networks for a living. That's why the Wi-Fi Alliance is. The new version, 802.11ax, is the 6th version of 802.11, so they're calling it Wi-Fi 6. The previous couple of generations will get the same treatment retroactively, too. For instance, the existing standard I mentioned before, 802.11ac? That's called Wi-Fi 5 now.
How fast is Wi-Fi 6?
That's a topic of some debate, and we won't have a definitive answer until we've had the chance to fully test the hardware out for ourselves, but the overall refrain from industry experts is that Wi-Fi 6 will offer speeds that are roughly 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, with theoretical maximum transfer speeds up around 10 Gbps.
That figure will really depend on context, though, because it's a lot more speed than you're likely to ever need from a single device. In environments with lots and lots of devices that need to connect, Wi-Fi 6 might make a huge difference. In small homes with only a few devices on the network, the difference might be harder to notice.
When does Wi-Fi 6 get here?
Wi-Fi 6 is already technically a thing -- it's a new, certified standard that newly-made wireless devices can put to use. It'll be a while before you have a ton of options, but Wi-Fi 6 routers from brands like Cisco, Netgear, Asus and are already rolling out, including mesh options for the and lineups with release dates set for the second half of the year. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S10 is the first phone to support Wi-Fi 6, and other devices are certain to follow suit. For instance, it's a pretty sure bet that the next iPhone and the next generation of laptops and Wi-Fi smart home devices will all support it, too.
You'll need both a Wi-Fi 6 router and Wi-Fi 6 devices like those in order to reap the full benefits of 802.11ax, but if you go ahead and get that fancy new router, your older devices will still work like normal. The rub is that they won't be much faster, if at all -- Wi-Fi 6 supports previous-gen 802.11 devices, but it can't do much to speed them up.
Who made Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest association of technical professionals. Along with a lot of other functions (its stated mission is "to advance technology for the benefit of humanity"), the IEEE is basically the keeper of Wi-Fi, with committees responsible for developing it and establishing industry standards.
So how is Wi-Fi 6 better than before?
Imagine a bar with lots of patrons trying to order drinks and just one bartender on duty. He's good at his job and capable of multitasking to an extent to speed up service, but it's still a pretty congested scene, and some patrons are going to have to wait.
That bartender is your router, and the patrons are all of the devices in your home that use Wi-Fi to communicate with it -- your phone, your laptop, your smart home devices, etc. All of them need the bartender's attention, but there's only so much to go around, and he's only so good at his job.
Replacing your router with a Wi-Fi 6 router is sort of like replacing that bartender with Goro from Mortal Kombat. He's a large, terrifying Shokan warrior if you aren't familiar, but the important part as far as this analogy is concerned is that he's got four arms.
Suddenly, bartender Goro is serving up drinks to multiple wide-eyed patrons at once. Along with the four arms speeding things up, it turns out he has a knack for the job, too. He's using each of his humongous hands to drop off multiple drinks in front of multiple customers in a single pass, then grabbing empty glasses on the way back to keep the bar clear. The customers are confused but impressed. Guy's a pro!
OK... But what does that mean on a technical level?
Fine, analogy over. Wi-Fi 6 is designed to allow network access points like routers to communicate more efficiently with more users and devices at once, and in a way that helps them use less power.
For starters, Wi-Fi 6 routers will be able to pack more information into each signal they send, which means they'll be able to communicate with devices faster and more efficiently. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 access points will be able to divy up each individual signal between multiple recipient devices, servicing all of them with a single transmission like a delivery truck driver with multiple stops on her route (or, you know, like Goro serving multiple drinks at once with his enormous, three-fingered hands).
Like I said, Wi-Fi 6 routers will be able to send more information with each signal -- bigger pours from Goro as he slings drinks. To understand how, know that Wi-Fi works using radios. Devices that want to send a Wi-Fi transmission modulate the signal of a frequency on a specific radio channel. To the device receiving the transmission, those specific modulations signify specific bits of binary code -- the ones and zeroes that make up every piece of digital information you've ever consumed.
This approach is called quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM. The better your router is at QAM, the more binary code it can send with each transmission. For instance, a 2-QAM access point would only be able to modulate the Wi-Fi radio waves in one of two ways, so each transmission could only be a 1 or a 0. A 4-QAM access point could modulate the radio waves in four distinct ways, which would allow it to send either 00, 01, 10, or 11 with each transmission. Two digits at once means more code at once -- that's better!
These days, current-gen Wi-Fi 5 routers are 256-QAM, which lets them send eight digits of binary at once. That was a big jump from what came before, and it's a big reason why after 2013 or so, when Wi-Fi 5 started rolling out, people started spending a lot less time waiting for videos to buffer.
Wi-Fi 6 will raise things up to 1024-QAM, which equates to ten digits of binary with each transmission. The Wi-Fi Alliance claims that this will equate to speed boosts of up to 30% and increase throughput for "emerging, bandwidth-intensive use cases" -- your 4K streams, your augmented reality apps, what have you.
OFDMA makes your router a better multi-tasker
Remember Goro's four arms? Of course you do, it's his defining characteristic (and I keep bringing it up -- sorry not sorry!) Well, for the purpose of my bartending analogy, you can think of those four arms as something called orthagonal frequency division multiple access, or OFDMA. Yes, this will be on the test.
Put simply, OFDMA is a new feature with Wi-Fi 6 that gives your router the ability to serve multiple clients at once within a single channel. Rather than giving your router four arms, what OFDMA does is allow your router to divide whatever channel it's using to send its signals on the 2.4 or 5GHz frequency band into smaller frequency allocations called resource units, or RUs. Each one of these RUs is sort of like one of Goro's extra arms -- they give your router another avenue with which to dish out information, which in turn, reduces latency.
So, as an example, if you're sitting in your living room checking Twitter while streaming Game of Thrones, your Wi-Fi 6 router might allocate one RU to your streaming device and another to your phone, or divide the data each device requires between multiple RUs. Either way, they'll both get service from the router simultaneously. OFDMA is flexible like that (cut to Goro cracking his knuckles).
OFDMA will complement another feature worth mentioning that's called multi-user, multiple input multiple output, or MU-MIMO for short. Like OFDMA, MU-MIMO lets your router communicate with multiple devices at once, but instead of dividing channels into resource units, MU-MIMO uses spatial differences between devices to divide attention between them.
MU-MIMO was first introduced in 2015 as an upgrade for Wi-Fi 5, but it only worked for outgoing signals from the router. The Wi-Fi 6 version of MU-MIMO will fix that, and let your router handle incoming signals from multiple devices, too.
Target Wake Time
Wi-Fi 6 access points will also be smarter about scheduling when devices should wake up and request information. This helps those devices avoid interfering with each other, which, in turn, helps them spend more time in their battery-saving sleep modes. That means you might not have to swap out the batteries in things like smart locks and motion sensors quite as often.
This is all thanks to a new feature called Target Wake Time that essentially lets your router act as a traffic cop. When a device like a temperature sensor or a smart lock on your network needs to periodically ping the router to report its status, Wi-Fi 6 will let the router put it on a schedule to keep it from colliding with another incoming signal and creating congestion.
To bring our bartender Goro back into it, Target Wake Time is a little like giving him the ability to schedule when customers can place orders, which in turn means they'll have to spend less energy talking over one another to get his attention.
When and where will Wi-Fi 6 make a difference for me?
It's still very early for Wi-Fi 6, and the Wi-Fi Alliance says that it won't start offering Wi-Fi 6 certification for devices until the third quarter of 2019. A few manufacturers have already jumped in with Wi-Fi 6 routers of their own just the same -- but there really isn't much reason for most folks to rush out and buy one just yet. Even if they did, they wouldn't really be able to take advantage of it until the majority of the devices in their home supported the standard, too. That's still a long ways off.
And remember, Wi-Fi 6 is an upgrade for routers and Wi-Fi devices, not an upgrade to your Wi-Fi service in general. If you have a slow connection from your service provider to start with, a Wi-Fi 6 router won't fix that.
Still, along with the earliest of adopters, expect to see businesses begin to buy in on the enterprise level by the end of this year. With improved capabilities for handling lots of devices at once being the key gist of the upgrade, you can expect Wi-Fi 6 to soon start making a noticeable difference in dense, crowded spaces like stadiums and airports, too.
We'll be testing out the first generation of Wi-Fi 6 routers later this year, so stay tuned for a lot more on that front. In the meantime, feel free to click the little envelope icon on my CNET profile page to send your questions my way. All of those submissions go straight to my inbox, and I make an effort to respond to all of them (just, you know, be at least somewhat nice).
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have the weirdest hankering to go and play Mortal Kombat at a dive bar. BRB.
Originally published May 11.
Update, May 13: Adds more details about Wi-Fi 6 routers that are available now, or that will be in the coming months.