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Wi-Fi is faster than ever. Here's where it's headed in 2020

Wireless networking took a big step forward in 2019 with the introduction of next-gen Wi-Fi 6 technology. Now, industry experts say that the table is set for Wi-Fi's fastest year yet.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants you to look for the Wi-Fi 6 logo.

 Wi-Fi 6: Not just faster, but a little easier to wrap your head around, too.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

2019 was a banner year for wireless networking. Along with the first 5G networks, we saw the debut of a new, next-gen version of Wi-Fi. Dubbed Wi-Fi 6, the new standard promises faster, more efficient performance from Wi-Fi routers and client devices that support it -- and in our tests, it delivers as advertised.

In other words, the future is looking awfully fast. Here's a closer look at where things stand, and what it all means for your ever-more-connected life.

Getting away from alphabet soup

The arrival of Wi-Fi 6 was a significant wireless networking milestone in 2019, and not just because of the faster speeds. The new standard also introduces new nomenclature for the category, with "Wi-Fi 6" and "Wi-Fi 5" as simplified stand-ins for the technical names of each generation (802.11ax and 802.11ac).

"It was, I think, exciting to take the next step with Wi-Fi, to get out out of the alphabet soup and to a common language everyone can understand and agree upon," said Todd Nightingale, SVP and General Manager at Cisco Meraki, which sells wireless networking hardware to businesses, schools and government clients.

"We saw more of the business shift to Wi-Fi 6 than we had anticipated," Nightingale tells CNET. "In fact, we had to start making them faster than we had intended."

Manufacturers indicate that Wi-Fi 6 awareness seems strong on the consumer side of things, too, especially now that flagship smart phones from Apple and Samsung have hit the market with full support for the new standard.

"We see that reflected in the reviews for our portfolio of products for Wi-Fi 6," a Netgear spokesperson tells me. "There are a lot of people who say, 'Hey, I bought a Netgear Nighthawk router because I have an iPhone 11.'"

To that end, 2019 saw the first crop of Wi-Fi 6 routers hit the market. Along with the Netgear Nighthawk lineup, that includes speedy, top-of-the-line models from stalwarts like TP-Link, Asus and Ubiquiti. Most cost hundreds of dollars, though TP-Link also introduced a new entry-level Wi-Fi 6 lineup with prices starting at just $70. As we round the corner into 2020 -- and with CES just a few weeks away -- it'll be interesting to see if other manufacturers move to bring the cost of next-gen Wi-Fi down, as well.

Mesh for the masses

Mesh router systems that use multiple devices to sling a speedy Wi-Fi signal to all corners of the home first hit the market a few years ago. It was an appealing pitch, but the systems were expensive, typically costing at least $300.

That changed in 2019. With the rise of smart home gadgets increasing demand for reliable, whole-home Wi-Fi, experts started projecting significant growth for the mesh category. The big names all swooped in, refining their systems or introducing new ones in order to best catch the coming wave. In most cases, that meant bringing the price down.

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From left to right, new mesh router systems from Netgear Orbi, Nest and Eero.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon, for instance, moved to acquire Eero, a mesh pioneer. Months later, the company announced a brand new version of its popular, three-piece mesh router for $249 -- half the cost of the previous-gen Eero that came before it. Google, meanwhile, released Nest Wifi, which offers a better design, faster speeds and better value than the original Google Wifi system it replaced.

The best value of all came from Netgear, which released a new, dual-band version of its two-piece Orbi mesh system that costs just $129. For comparison, the original, tri-band Orbi system cost $400.

All three of those systems tested well in our lab, and in our real-world speed tests, making it an especially tempting time to buy in with mesh. If the market is indeed primed, then the industry seems well-positioned to capitalize.

Not so fast, say Google and Amazon

All of that said, none of those three systems support Wi-Fi 6. Both Google and Amazon maintain that it's still too early for the new standard to make much of a difference in people's homes, and point to the fact that the average internet speed in the US only represents a fraction of what Wi-Fi 6 hardware is capable of.

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The new Eero doesn't support Wi-Fi 6, and neither does Nest Wifi.

James Martin/CNET

At Amazon, Eero founder 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.

Industry experts I've spoken with acknowledge that Amazon and Google's wait-and-see approach to Wi-Fi 6 might be a smart play.

"You know, I think Google and Eero's guys might have it right for the home," Nightingale told me. "I think it'll be okay if they wait for the next generation, and for costs to come down with the silicon before they make their next move." He adds that Wi-Fi 6 is currently much better suited for environments like universities and commercial spaces that typically have greater access to high-speed broadband.

That said, you can already find a number of new mesh systems that do support Wi-Fi 6, including products like the Linksys Velop, the Arris SURFboard mAX, the Asus RT-AX92U and another new, higher-end version of Netgear Orbi. None of them come cheap. Arris and Asus will each sell you a two-piece system for between $300 and $500, while Linksys and Netgear's systems each cost $700. 

As more and more people look to buy in with mesh, Amazon and Google seem to be making a clear bet that they'll be shopping on price more than on specs. It'll be interesting to watch that strategy evolve in 2020, when we'll undoubtedly see even more competition in the mesh category.

Full speed ahead?

Internet speeds are inching upward in the US, and it appears that today's wireless networking hardware is in a good position to take full advantage of it. With a glut of new gadgets incoming at the start of the year (and with Wi-Fi 6 certification already up and running), it's a very safe bet that we'll see lots of support for the new standard next month at CES. As people buy in with gadgets like those, demand for next-gen routers will only increase.

And while it'll still be a while before gigabit-plus speeds are more the norm than the exception, other, more subtle Wi-Fi 6 benefits could be coming soon to an office, shopping center, or lecture hall near you. At Cisco, Todd Nightingale described the immediate benefits of Wi-Fi 6 in high-bandwidth, "mission-critical" use cases like point of sale terminals, healthcare devices and IoT store management.

"The power saving options are so good that it really opens up this this world of IoT devices that are battery powered, that can last not hours or days, but weeks or months, or maybe even years on a Wi-Fi network," Nightingale says, adding that Wi-Fi 6 client devices like the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10 might also enjoy a stronger boost to battery performance than people expect.

"The battery benefits will be apparent, and that'll be a big step forward."

We'll look forward to testing claims like those in 2020, so stay tuned. The Wi-Fi beat certainly isn't slowing down anytime soon.