What is Wi-Fi 6? (802.11ax), How Fast is it, and What are its Benefits?

Looking to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6? This guide highlights the differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, and how to upgrade.

Wi-Fi 6
(Credit: Frank Harms / Alamy Stock Photo)

A new set of technologies included in Wi-Fi 6 enables network routers to better communicate with multiple devices at once in the same broadcast, with Wi-Fi devices periodically checking in with routers for new updates. This support for greater connectivity is critical at a time when companies are installing thousands of sensors and other IoT devices and when households are moving from several network devices to device counts that are in double digits.

Understanding Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi connectivity to the Internet. Wi-Fi 6 is faster than its predecessor Wi-Fi 5, as demonstrated by a Wi-Fi 6 speed of 9.6 Gbps versus 3.5 Gbps for Wi-Fi 5. However, the upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 from Wi-Fi 5 isn’t just about speed. This upgrade also delivers greater connectivity for a growing number of IoT devices that are being installed on networks in homes and businesses.

Like previous versions of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6 has an alternate wireless standard naming convention that is defined by the IEEE, and that is used by the Wi-Fi Alliance. The IEEE term for Wi-Fi 6 is wireless standard 802.ax (aka, 802.11ax WiFi-6). Because multiple revisions have occurred under the IEEE 802 wireless engineering specification, this has created confusion for companies as to which IEEE revision level of Wi-Fi to use.

To reduce the confusion, the goal in the industry is now to eliminate the IEEE 802 revision names altogether and instead just simply refer to Wi-Fi under its version level names, such as Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 (although it is still possible that you might still see references to 802 IEEE nomenclature on some Wi-Fi equipment). This simplification of Wi-Fi classifications will help companies better determine the Wi-Fi equipment that they need. Additionally, many Wi-Fi devices will now come with display choices for both Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, so you can choose which Wi-Fi level you want each device to use.

Why would you want the flexibility of selecting either Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 for a device? Hands down, Wi-Fi 6 is the preferred choice because of its enhanced speed and connectivity, which creates far less congestion on your network. Wi-Fi 6 is also backwards-compatible with older devices that run Wi-Fi 5. However, if you are using older devices that do not support Wi-Fi 6, you will not be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 capabilities because the devices will fall back into operation at the Wi-Fi 5 level. If this is the case, it might make sense to defer a financial investment into Wi-Fi 6 until you've upgraded (or secured a budget) for a number of your devices so they can use Wi-Fi 6.


The Evolution of Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi 6

The evolution of Wi-Fi has always been to achieve greater speeds of transport, but now, with Wi-Fi 6, there is the additional benefit of network connectivity that divides bandwidth into smaller resource units that are committed to each individual device that is using the network. By allocating more network resources on a per-device basis, Wi-Fi 6 can provide faster, higher-quality service for all of these devices. This improves overall network performance.

1. What are the differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6?

There are two primary differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6.

First, Wi-Fi 5 is slower. It provides speeds of up to 6.8 Gbps, while Wi-Fi 6 speed is at 9.6 Gbps. Wi-Fi 6 also provides better connectivity for a myriad of network-attached devices. It does this by providing a combination of enhanced bandwidth, streaming, and signaling that Wi-Fi 5 doesn’t have.

2. What are the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 over previous-generation Wi-Fi technologies?

There are several Wi-Fi 6 benefits. Speed of throughput is one advantage that Wi-Fi 6 has over Wi-Fi 5. However, it is in the improvements in bandwidth usage and allocation that Wi-Fi 6 really surpasses Wi-Fi 5—with the end result of being able to run more Wi-Fi attached devices at optimum quality without risk of performance degradation.

Under the original IEEE 802 specification, Wi-Fi first came out in 1997 (802.11). It had a speed of just 2 Mbps. Ten years later, when Wi-Fi 4 was introduced (802.11n), the speed was up to 600 Mbps. In 2013, Wi-Fi 4 was replaced by Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), which moved the speed up to 6.8 Gbps. Now, with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), the speed has moved up to 9.6 Gbps.

3. What are the improvements in Wi-Fi 6 over Wi-Fi 5?

 Wi-Fi 6 delivers full duplex MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology). MU-MIMO enables concurrent network users accessing Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E networks to both upload and download data rapidly and with high quality. In comparison, Wi-Fi 5 gives a higher priority to data downloads than uploads. As Internet usage has expanded, both upload and download speeds are now important. Wi-Fi 6 addresses the issue by optimizing speeds in both upload and download directions.

Also, with Wi-Fi 6, latency levels are reduced from what they were under Wi-Fi 5. Both Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 use individual communications channels when they connect with using devices, and both also use a technology called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which enables more data to be packed into each communications channel by subdividing each channel into a series of smaller resource streams. The difference between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 is that Wi-Fi 5 only subdivides each communications channel into four separate resource streams. Wi-Fi 6 subdivides each channel into eight resource streams, so there is twice the capacity to handle multiple concurrent devices under Wi-Fi 6.

4. What are the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 for users?

Wi-Fi 6 brings many new features that improve network connectivity for users. Even in crowded campus environments with many concurrent users, users will obtain faster access to their data. Data such as live video feeds will be of higher quality and without jitter Transmission delays induced by latency will be largely eliminated. The end results are that users will have a higher quality network experience, and they will be able to get more work done faster.

For company users who work in remote edge computing environments, such as a manufacturing plant, a utility substation, or a hospital operating room that is in a separate location, the ability to use widespread automation such as robots, sensors, and other automation will have Wi-Fi 6 support, regardless of how many network devices are attached. This will enable companies to move forward with their business modernization plans.


Key Features and Benefits of Wi-Fi 6

There are additional benefits of Wi-Fi 6 that network professionals will notice.

Wi-Fi 6 will speed up data flows, and it will be better able to transport heavier data payloads. Heavy data transport will be a vital capability as more organizations adopt analytics, artificial intelligence, video content, IoT, etc.—all of which use large data payloads that must rapidly make their way across the network to users.

Additionally, there is security. Wi-Fi 6 routers and other gear are equipped with the latest security protocols, so there is a reduced risk of encountering a security breach that can enter a network via an older piece of equipment that uses an outdated security protocol.

1. Higher data transfer speed

When more network devices, such as IoT sensors, are attached to networks, there will be less concern about the potential for network performance degradation and the need to manage it. At peak network usage times, Wi-Fi 6 will be better able to accommodate the congestion, and network staff won't have to scramble in order to prioritize some types of traffic over others.

2. Improved congestion management

Wi-Fi 6 manages network traffic congestion better than Wi-Fi 5 because it can support twice the number of concurrent devices per channel as Wi-Fi 5. Future Wi-Fi 6 releases will continue to improve network efficiency by taking into account devices that are in sleep or low power mode and provisioning only the resources that are needed.

Wi-Fi version 6E additionally includes the newly available 6 GHz band (not available with Wi-Fi 5). This new band, which supports only Wi-Fi 6-compatible devices, contains an additional seven 160 MHz-wide channels, which add additional carrying capacity to the network.

3. Increased range for wireless devices

Wi-Fi 6 provides increased range for wireless device cells because it provides both 5GHz throughput (like Wi-Fi 5) and also slower 2.4 GHz throughput, which is ideal for devices like sensors that have been deployed over longer distances, that only need to connect and transmit data periodically, and that have low bandwidth needs. The net result is that Wi-Fi 6 can handle more devices at longer ranges.

Wi-Fi 6 has faster throughput than Wi-Fi 5, so the signaling out to the peripheries of edge computing deployments will be inherently stronger because there is more available bandwidth.

4. Improved connectivity

Because WI-Fi 6 can operate concurrently at both 5GHz and 2.4 GHz frequencies, a Wi-Fi 6 network can be deployed with a diversity of IoT devices, low power sensors, and alarms that spend much of their time in sleep mode. This gives organizations greater flexibility of deployment when they install IoT and edge computing.

5. Better security

Wi-Fi 6 technology and devices all support the latest security protocol, which is Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3). WPA3 security is significantly hardened over the security of its predecessor WPA2 and WPA3 protocols because it has stronger user authentication technology and more effective data encryption tools.

6. Improved performance in dense environments

Because Wi-Fi 6 has a full duplex MU-MIMO, it is able to deliver excellent upload and download performance to users. Even in very dense computing environments, like a manufacturing plant packed with IoT devices and robots or in a call center with hundreds of call agents working concurrently, Wi-Fi 6 delivers improved performance over Wi-Fi 5. This is because Wi-Fi 6 can run devices over eight separate streams per channel (compared to Wi-Fi 5, which only has half the amount of resource streams per channel).

By doubling the number of resource streams per channel that can be provisioned to users, and by providing excellent support for uploads as well as data downloads, Wi-Fi 6 surpasses Wi-Fi 5 performance in dense computing environments.

7. Ability to handle an increased number of connected devices

As part of its dense computing environment support, Wi-Fi 6 can support many more devices than Wi-Fi 5. Once again, this is due to the greater number of resource streams per channel that Wi-Fi 6 makes available, as well as to Wi-Fi 6’s improved performance over Wi-Fi 5 when it comes to data uploads.


How to Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6

There are several different paths that companies can take to upgrade from Wi-Fi 5 (or lower) to Wi-Fi 6. The good news is that, regardless of implementation choice, Wi-Fi 6 is fully backwards compatible.

If an enterprise wants total, end-to-end Wi-Fi 6 capability throughout its network, the only option it has for Wi-Fi 6 implementation is a total rip and replace of all non-Wi-Fi 6 equipment on the network. This equipment must be replaced with Wi-Fi 6-certified equipment. Most companies can't afford to do a total rip and replace equipment when they upgrade to Wi-Fi 6. Instead, they prioritize their networks and then decide which networks to upgrade first. As time and budget resources allow, they proceed with a more gradual, step-by-step network migration to Wi-Fi 6, replacing equipment as they go.

Step 1: Educate yourself about the different Wi-Fi 6 technologies

Wi-Fi 6 has greatly improved performance by using two major technologies: MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology), which allows more concurrent users to both upload and download data simultaneously; and OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), which doubles the number of resource streams per channel and adds another band of frequency so more devices can be supported on the network.

The most productive way to educate yourself in these technologies is to assess how they will specifically enhance your network performance. How many users are complaining that it takes too long to upload data? What are the company plans for adding more devices on the network and in remote settings? If these are the issues on the table, it is relatively straightforward to project how much Wi-Fi 6 MU-MIMO and ODFMA will positively impact your network performance and bring value to the company.

Step 2: Choose your upgrade path

Since Wi-Fi 6 is backwards-compatible with earlier generations of Wi-Fi, you can continue to use your existing network routers and other devices. The caveat is that they will not be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s new capabilities unless they are Wi-Fi 6-certified equipment.

To perform a total upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, companies must weigh the pros and cons. The primary con is the cost of replacing all equipment, so in many cases, companies will opt to gradually replace older equipment and slowly migrate to Wi-Fi 6. In other cases, companies might want to be extremely aggressive in adopting Wi-Fi 6. They will fund a full equipment replacement in addition to upgrading their network to run on Wi-Fi 6.

Step 3: Select Wi-Fi 6 access points and enterprise Wi-Fi routers

You will need Wi-Fi 6 certified equipment in order to run Wi-Fi 6 at the Wi-Fi 6 level. This equipment includes routers, smartphones, servers, network-attached storage, sensors, drones, industrial robotics and automated equipment, and any other assets that are attached to the network.

Equipment manufacturers are aware of this, too, so there is an abundance of devices that you can choose from.

Step 4: Upgrade your devices one at a time

You are moving into a new wireless protocol, so even if your decision is to upgrade every device on your Wi-Fi 6 network immediately, it is wise to install and test each device in a “one-at-a-time” mode.

There are several reasons for this. First, you are on a new protocol that vendors have rushed to develop equipment for. There are bound to be some bugs that must be resolved in this "first generation" Wi-Fi 6 equipment. Second, most Wi-Fi IoT devices arrive with wide-open security default settings. The expectation is that you will calibrate these settings to the levels of security that your corporate governance demands, but many IT departments forget to do this and just install them. By implementing devices one at a time, you can take a little more time and care during installation to ensure that everything is working and that it is at the proper security level.

Step 5: Start buying/deploying Wi-Fi 6 end user equipment (desktop computers, laptops, tablets, NIC cards, etc.)

A move to Wi-Fi 6 is strategic. It should be carefully coordinated, and decisions should be made and followed as to which networks are to be upgraded first. This is no time for user departments to make their own separate investments into Wi-Fi 6 equipment, or for IT to swap out devices in the network without notifying users, since it is likely that there will be bugs to resolve.

As much as possible, equipment should be standardized (e.g., the same NIC card used throughout the network). This simplifies technical support and reduces the number of vendors involved. Part of your Wi-Fi 6 equipment buying decision should also be based on the level of technical support and commitment to product improvements that the vendor promises.

Step 6: Look for IoT solutions powered by Wi-Fi 6

If your company is looking for a total network solution that runs a warehouse distribution center, a call center, a robotics solution that runs an entire manufacturing plant or medical facility, or any other turnkey network and device solution for the business requiring vendors to provide Wi-Fi 6 connectivity and equipment is a must.

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi, and it is being implemented now. To protect your IT investments, it’s important to use Wi-Fi 6 networks and equipment in any turnkey solution because anything less is already an outmoded system.


A Final Word About Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi. It takes Wi-Fi to a new level with its abilities to connect more devices, deliver higher levels of quality service for both downloads and uploads, carry more heavy data payloads that are needed by analytics and AI, and deliver state-of-the -art security and data encryptions that enterprises want.

That having been said, a majority of companies will continue to operate in a mixed mode of both Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 networks, as few can afford an end to end “rip and replace” of all of their network attached devices at once.

Careful planning with steady progress is the order of the day.

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights