We’ve come a long way from the early wireless routers we saw nearly 20 years ago. Wi-Fi has gone from being high technology to a commodity that’s almost everywhere.

The different flavours of Wi-Fi have long had complicated names but a new initiative from the Wi-Fi Alliance seeks to remove the confusion. We’ll explain what’s happening and why it’ll be important for future wireless devices you have in your home.

What is being introduced

The Wi-Fi standards that exist at the moment are being renamed and there’s a new name for the upcoming Wi-Fi standard (802.11ax), which will be called Wi-Fi 6. Before now, wireless standards have been referred to a technical name – the name they were originally given by the IEEE, which is the organisation that defines networking standards.

Now the following will be used:

  • Wi-Fi 6 means 802.11ax technology – the next generation of Wi-Fi, coming in 2019
  • Wi-Fi 5 means 802.11ac technology – effectively the current generation
  • Wi-Fi 4 means 802.11n technology – many people will have networking gear based on 802.11n, but it was replaced by 802.11ac in many new routers from 2013 on.

It’s worth noting that all the wireless standards referred to here are backwards compatible. So your devices won’t suddenly stop working when Wi-Fi 6 is introduced.

There are also new graphics to go with the three new names:

Wi-FI AllianceWhat Are Wi-fi 5 And Wi-fi 6 Why Wi-fi Is Introducing Catchy Names For Different Standards image 2

Why this is happening now

Essentially, the names will be easier to understand. If you have a new router from the last couple of years, chances are it will support 802.11ac and older standards including 802.11n. or, in the new nomenclature, it will support Wi-Fi 5 and 6.

Because Wi-Fi 6 hasn’t yet been introduced, the Wi-Fi Alliance reasons that the change should happen now before consumers even hear about 802.11ax for the first time in 2019.

Where will the new Wi-Fi names appear?

You’ll see Wi-Fi 6 appear on spec sheets from the get-go but the confusion may be over older standards. For example, some marketing materials promoting 802.11ac networking gear will surely still call it that rather than Wi-Fi 5, simply because spec sheets, products and packaging are already out there and won't necessarily be updated for the new names. 

What Wi-Fi 6 promises

Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax) promises a speed improvement of around 30 percent but the changes are more wide-reaching than just a headline number. 

Latency will also be cut significantly while crucial to this version of Wi-Fi is the way it handles multiple devices – it will be able to deliver a lot more data to each device simultaneously. 

And yes, that does mean that in places where you have vast numbers of devices – like exhibitions, press conferences, stadiums and similar – we should get more robust networks in future. 

When Wi-Fi 6 will appear

There have been problems getting Wi-Fi 6 to the final stage. For a new Wi-Fi standard to be approved, it requires years of work and for various parties to input into the process. Think of it as a slow process, even slower than getting a new law approved in Parliament or Congress. The first two versions of 801.11ax never made it and, while a third has now been approved, we’re not looking until well into 2019 before it will be rubber-stamped.

Expect the first Wi-Fi 6 devices to appear during early-to-mid 2019. Because only small tweaks will be made to the Wi-Fi 6 standard between now and ratification, devices such as routers may ship earlier and then receive a firmware upgrade to the final standard.

5G might solve some of these problems

If 5G fulfils its promise then yes, it’s highly possible that 5G broadband can cater for many of these needs. But there will still be situations where Wi-Fi networks will be needed – such as within company buildings on a corporate network.

Also we don’t yet know how much a 5G broadband connection would cost us per month whereas we’ve got a fairly good idea what a Wi-Fi 6 wireless router and home broadband connection will set us back; not much different to now. With 5G deployment starting in earnest next year – and with the first Wi-Fi 6 gear set to debut, too – it will be interesting to see how this pans out for homes and businesses.