Is WI-FI 6 the latest new shiny object?
With tech products like Wi-Fi 6 we are often eager to buy the latest new thing. Even if we don’t know why we should.
Almost like little children, we are drawn to the shiny new objects simply because they are new.
Our desire to buy the newest products is also called GAS – gear acquisition syndrome.
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Wi-Fi 6. Lots of clients asking if they should buy new Wi-Fi routers or replace their existing equipment.
No specific problem or desired feature, just GAS envy as they hear everyone else talking about switching to Wi-Fi 6 too.
WI-FI technology overview
The newest upgrade to wireless networking is Wi-Fi 6. Fortunately for both us consumers and technology integrators, Wi-Fi is one of the few mainstream technologies we use that is fully standardized.
A recognized standards association, a series of standards over the years that insures compatibility between brands, and no risk in buying equipment. What more could anyone ask for?
Well, actually, a lot! Firstly, my friends across the pond will remind me to mention that although Wi-Fi is a worldwide standard, different countries use different frequency bands, so you still have to be careful.
Our laptop, tablet, or cellphone Wi-Fi will work anywhere by adapting to the required frequencies, but Wi-Fi equipment – access points, routers, and gateways must be purchased in models specific to the country of use.
The Wi-Fi standard covers most of what typical consumer systems need, but each manufacturer is free to add their own special features or capability.
WI-FI 6 Improvements
Currently, the biggest area of difference is mesh technology and roaming/fast roaming.
Although there are emerging standards in both of these areas, if you want to take advantage of reliable and trouble-free mesh points and fast client roaming, stick to buying all your Wi-Fi equipment from a single company.
Mesh technology is the ability to use more than one Wi-Fi access point to provide better coverage and throughput. The multiple Wi-Fi devices talk between themselves to co-ordinate traffic and pass data along until it reaches the unit directly connected to your Internet feed (cable modem typically).
Roaming is the mechanism where a portable device such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer moves between access points to get a stronger/better signal while not dropping the connection or missing a frame of video in the process.
By definition, roaming is only used with our portable devices actually moving around and only when you have more than Wi-Fi access point.
Wi-Fi was created in the days of big desktop computers. We had ugly home or office computers that never moved around, but we wanted to connect them without stringing long runs of cables all over the place.
Long story short, Wi-Fi works great in our homes and is fully standardized but is still a bit of a hot mess when you have mobile devices and multiple access points aka mesh networks.
WI-FI 6 in a nutshell
Wi-Fi 6 is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The manufacturers and standards group have added more capability to make Wi-Fi better. Here’s some of what they have added:
Lower power mode – With a lot more mobile and battery operated devices, Wi-Fi 6 adds power management improvements. Not just to prolong the battery life of your smartphone, but to allow all kinds of Wi-Fi devices such as home automation smart switches, LED lights, window sensors, and more to operate much longer and with smaller batteries.
Think of this as “WiFi Strikes Back” to regain ground lost to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Z-Wave, and Zigbee. All of these alternative wireless technologies are widely used because of low-power and low-cost.
But using more than just Wi-Fi adds complexity with the need for special hubs, bridges, gateways and software. Wi-Fi 6 hopes to recapture market share for all these small devices by allowing Wi-Fi to be used just as effectively instead.
Higher Performance – No surprise here. “Faster, Better, Cheaper” is marketing 101 for all high tech products. Wi-Fi 6 has theoretical speeds up to 3 times faster – over 9 Gbps aggregate throughput.
The true value of Wi-Fi 6
More than raw speed, a lot of the improvements are under the hood and designed to provide more capacity for multiple devices instead of just faster speed for one.
Wi-Fi 6 is also designed for higher density. Our homes are growing from an average of 4 to 5 Wi-Fi devices to having tens or even a hundred or more devices (when counting all the Wi-Fi enabled home automation products).
Wi-Fi 6 has also improved the security/encryption that is used to stay a step or two ahead of the hackers.
Although mesh and roaming is not really new, Wi-Fi 6 devices will have a standardized basic mesh implementation and fast client roaming that is supposed to finally work across different manufacturers and devices.
Should you buy WI-FI 6?
No low-power Wi-Fi smart home devices exist yet. Most embedded devices only use 2.4Ghz and not the 5Ghz band because of cost, battery life, and extended range. So don’t hold your breath and they may not be cheap.
Fast roaming in our home networks is controlled by the client device, not the Wi-Fi access point. Until smartphones, tablets, and computers add support for roaming/fast roaming and stomp out the bugs, this is still going to be bleeding-edge, almost-works-but-never-flawless tech.
Use this simple quick fix for roaming – When you move to another part of your house, turn the Wi-Fi in your device off, wait 30 seconds, then turn it on again.
Yeah, kinda sucks, but that forces your phone or tablet to re-acquire the Wi-Fi signal and try to latch on to the closer/stronger one.
The Wi-Fi 6 Mesh standard is only basic functionality when used with different brands of equipment. If you need mesh, stick with one company’s equipment to get all the capability from it you really are buying.
Wi-Fi 6 is starting to show up in the latest smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Yet the majority of computing devices we already have and don’t plan to replace, do not have Wi-Fi 6 built in.
Keep in mind that the speed improvements in Wi-Fi 6 is focused on higher density and having lots of devices which doesn’t match most of our homes. If you have a single Wi-Fi 6 capable laptop or smartphone, a newer Wi-Fi 6 wireless network isn’t going to make them run appreciably faster.
Wi-Fi 6 will take time (several years) for all devices we own to be replaced with MU-MIMO and other fancy features that truly unleash the raw potential for increased speed and throughput.
There is one area where Wi-Fi 6 is worth consideration – wireless mesh configurations. If you don’t or can’t run Ethernet wiring through most of your home, your mesh Wi-Fi units will be using wireless links between themselves to communicate back to your primary broadband modem or router.
If you purchase the newest (and most expensive) triple-radio Wi-Fi 6 access points, they’ll be able use to Wi-Fi 6 speed and throughput improvements to maximize the connection between themselves.
This potentially can minimize the speed reduction that other wireless mesh units suffer when they cannot be interconnected with Ethernet.
My advice is only consider Wi-Fi 6 right now if you shopping for a brand new installation or have severe bandwidth/throughput problems now and cannot install additional Ethernet wiring as the best solution.
If you are expanding or adding to what you have, take a look, but it’s probably not a good value now and you won’t benefit from most of the improvements for quite a while.
As a brand new thing, the first wave (sorry bad pun) of Wi-Fi 6 products might be buggy and have a price premium.
Wi-Fi 6 will become mainstream over time and is a great incremental evolution of an important, proven technology.
Unless you love living on the bleeding edge or need bragging rights to having the ultimate Wi-Fi gear, I would sit on the sidelines for now.