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Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: New features offer better, faster connection

With Wi-Fi 6, the frustration of a slow connection in busy areas might be a thing of the past

802.11ac, or Wi-Fi 5 was released in 2014, and at the time, was the newest, fasted, and most reliable version of Wi-Fi. However, 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, is scheduled to be released later this year, and with a number of shiny new features, stands to replace Wi-Fi 5 as the best connectivity option available 

A number of successful commercial and industrial trials of the next generation of Wi-Fi have already been performed by companies like Cisco, Boingo and the Wireless Broadband Alliance. The trials demonstrated that, even when used in challenging environments that demand a ton of connected devices — crowded sporting events, highly-trafficked airports and large industrial parks — Wi-Fi 6 succeeded in providing faster speeds, improved security and more reliable connectivity.  

The most obvious improvement that Wi-Fi 6 will offer over previous generations of Wi-Fi is, of course, speed. In fact, when used with a single connected device, maximum potential speeds should be up to 40% higher compared to Wi-Fi 5  a 6.1 Gbps increase 

This feat of speed is accomplished through more efficient data encoding, resulting in higher throughput. The chips used to encode and decode the data packet into radio waves are becoming more powerful and more capable of handling extra work.  

The 9.6 Gbps speed of Wi-Fi 6 is more of a theoretical maximum; however, the beauty of that 9.6 Gbps is that it doesn’t have to go to a single device, but can instead be split up across a whole network of devices, resulting in more speed for each device on the network.  

This is because unlike Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 utilizes a channel access method called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA. The method allows for the division of a wireless channel into a large number of sub-channels, with each one carrying data intended for a different device.  

Wi-Fi 6 also has an improved version of multi-user or MU-MIMO that lets devices respond to the wireless access point at the same time that involves multiple antennas, which let the access point talk to multiple devices at once. With Wi-Fi 5, the access point could talk to devices at the same time, but those devices couldn’t respond at the same time.  

Another Wi-Fi 6 capability that will improve performance in congested areas is “spatial frequency re-use.” Currently, access points near each other that are transmitting on the same channel listen and wait for a clear signal before replying. On Wi-Fi 6, wireless access points near each other can be configured to have different Basic Service Set (BSS) “colors,” which are really just a number between 0 and 7.  A device on Wi-Fi 6 may notice a transmission with a weak signal and a different “color,” and then ignore this signal and move forward with its own transmission without lag.   

Wi-Fi 6 will also offer a new featured called, “target wake time” (TWT) that can tell the device exactly when to put its Wi-Fi radio to sleep and exactly when to wake it up to receive the next transmission as long as the device is connected to the Wi-Fi access point, conserving power, and resulting in longer battery life. 

Other key features include transmit beamforming, which improves signal power resulting in significantly higher rates at a given range, and 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM), which enables throughput increases by as much as 25% over Wi-Fi 5. 

Users are accustomed to slow connection when say, at a coffee shop where everyone has their laptop, tablet and smart phone hooked up to the same strained Wi-Fi access pointThere is nothing more frustrating than finishing your entire iced caramel macchiato latte before a webpage loads. But, with Wi-Fi 6, this frustration might be a thing of the past. 


Catherine Sbeglia Nin
Catherine Sbeglia Nin
Catherine is the Managing Editor for RCR Wireless News and Enterprise IoT Insights, where she covers topics such as Wi-Fi, network infrastructure and edge computing. She also hosts Arden Media's podcast Well, technically... After studying English and Film & Media Studies at The University of Rochester, she moved to Madison, WI. Having already lived on both coasts, she thought she’d give the middle a try. So far, she likes it very much.

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