What’s Wi-Fi 6 and 6E? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

What is Wifi 6? 802.11ax
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Standard Wi-Fi codes are unnecessarily complicated. What does “802.11ac” mean? Sure, it’s an important indicator of compatibile devices, but for most people, it’s just a list of meaningless numbers and letters that are a pain to decode.

Wi-Fi 6 seeks to solve that problem. It’s a new way of looking at Wi-Fi, introduced by an updated standard that officially arrived in late 2019. And while the Wi-Fi Alliance, the group the maintains the standard, is already contemplating new iterations and next-gen specifications — notably Wi-Fi 6E — Wi-Fi 6 will remain the standard for years to come. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

The dawn of generational Wi-Fi labels

The Wi-Fi Alliance is the organization in charge of deciding, developing, and designating Wi-Fi standards. As devices become more complex and internet connections evolve, the process of delivering wireless connections also changes. That means that Wi-Fi standards — the technical specifications that manufacturers use to create Wi-Fi — need to be periodically updated so that new technology can flourish and everything can remain compatible. So far, so good.

wi fi direct mimics bluetooth but with faster speed longer range alliance

But the awkward naming of Wi-Fi standards has become a real annoyance for the average person tried to figure out what those little letters at the end mean. The Wi-Fi Alliance is aware of this, which why they announced a new way to label Wi-Fi standards, simply by referring to the number of the generation. This will apply to the upcoming Wi-Fi 6, but will also be retroactive, applying to older standards. For example:

  • 802.11n (2009) = Wi-Fi 4
  • 802.11ac (2014) = Wi-Fi 5
  • 802.11ax (upcoming) = Wi-Fi 6

Easier, isn’t it? This will cause a period of confusion where some products are labeled with the old code and some are just called Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 5 when it means the same thing. In time, this should be resolved as older product labeling is phased out and everyone gets used to the new, friendly names when doing research.

What the Wi-Fi 6 standard brings

Now that we’ve covered the naming issue, you’re probably wondering just what Wi-Fi 6 brings to the table. Why was another update required? There are a lot of new Wi-Fi technologies on the rise, and Wi-Fi 6 helps standardize them. Here are the important new pieces, and what exactly they mean for your wireless network.

Benefits of Wi-fi 6 (802.11ax)

First off is lower latency. Reduced latency means there are shorter or no delay times as data is sent (very similar to ping rate and other such measurements). Everyone wants low latency connections because it improves load times and helps avoid disconnects and other issues. Wi-Fi 6 lowers latency compared to older Wi-Fi standards, using more advanced technology like OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access). Basically, it’s better at packing data into a signal.

Of course, Wi-Fi 6, will also be faster. By offering full support for technologies like MU-MIMO, connection quality will vastly improve for compatible mobile devices, which should also speed up content delivery. Even if you don’t upgrade your internet speed, such improvements can improve the speed of your Wi-Fi data anyway, so you get more information, faster. How much faster? Digital Trends tested a Wi-Fi 6 laptop and router in late December, and found a more than 60% increase in speed.

How do you know if a router, phone or other device works with the new 802.11ax standard? Check the label.

It also means fewer dead zones, thanks to some expanded beamforming capabilities. Beamforming is the trick your router uses to focus signals on a particular device, especially if it looks like that device is having trouble with a connection. The new standard expands the range of beamforming and improves its capabilities, making dead zones in your house even less likely.

Lastly, Wi-Fi 6 means better battery life. There’s a term called “TWT” or target wake time, a new technology that Wi-fi 6 embraces. This helps connected device customize when and how they “wake up” to receive data signals from Wi-Fi. It makes it much easier for devices to “sleep” while waiting for the next necessary Wi-Fi transmission (this does not mean your device is turned off, just the parts used for Wi-Fi). In turn, this has the potential to save a significant amount of battery life for devices, which should make everyone happy.

Watching for the Wi-Fi 6 label

Wi-Fi Logos

So, how do you know if a router, phone or other device works with the new 802.11ax standard? First, and most obviously, look for the phrase “Wi-Fi 6” on packaging, advertisements, labels and so on. However, the Wi-Fi Alliance has also suggested using icons to show the Wi-Fi generation. These icons look like Wi-Fi signals with a circled number within the signal. Watch for these icons as well when picking out the right device.

Buying a Wi-Fi 6 device

If you go shopping for a new router, you’ll probably notice that Wi-Fi 6 routers are already available. These routers use an early version of Wi-Fi 6 for those who want to adopt the technology as soon as possible.

These routers can exist before Wi-Fi 6 is officially finalized in late 2019 because all the important information about Wi-Fi 6 protocol exists. Brands, eager to be the first to offer a new Wi-Fi technology, have gone ahead and started manufacturing routers based on the draft version of Wi-Fi 6. They are betting that any other final changes to Wi-Fi 6 will be minor and easily addressed, probably through a firmware update — and they’re probably right. So, the devices available now are using a prototype version of the new standard, and will be updated in 2020.

The biggest issue with purchasing Wi-Fi 6 routers right now is that there are very few devices devices on the market capable of using the Wi-Fi 6 features. One of the very few is the Galaxy S10. Wi-Fi 6 computers are also slowly coming to market: Intel’s 10th-gen processors include Wi-Fi 6 compatibility, which means compatible laptops and other mobile devices will soon be on their way. Desktop upgrades with support for Wi-Fi 6 will no doubt take a bit longer to launch. But by the end of 2020, we should see the standard fully adopted by the majority of devices and new routers.

Wi-Fi 6E: On Beyond 5GHz

Last September, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai mentioned that the FCC was interested in “opening up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6GHz band for different types of unlicensed uses,” including Wi-Fi.

Now the Wi-Fi Alliance is gearing up to develop products that can make use of that freed up spectrum in the 6GHz band — whenver it gets here, that is. According to a press release published on Friday, January 3, the Wi-Fi Alliance has come up with a name for this new class of devices: Wi-Fi 6E. These devices are expected to offer the same features as Wi-Fi 6, namely faster data rates and lower latency.

The release of Wi-Fi 6E products are still pending the official regulatory approval of the opening up of the 6GHz band to Wi-Fi, so it’s still unknown when those products will be made available to the public. We expect companies will move quickly once the approval goes through.

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