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.
We're now about to see a new generation of Wi-Fi devices launched. The different flavours of Wi-Fi have long had complicated names but, in an attempt to remove confusion, the Wi-Fi Alliance has renamed the current, past and next-generation versions of Wi-Fi.
We’ll explain what’s happening and why it’ll be important for future wireless devices you'll have in your home. We'll also take a look at the new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) routers that have already been launched.
Why we've got new names for Wi-Fi
The Wi-Fi standards you use in your home have been renamed and, as we mentioned, there’s a new name for the incoming Wi-Fi standard (802.11ax), which is 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 new generation of Wi-Fi, present in many new routers you'll buy from now on - but not many devices as yet.
- 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.
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.
There are also new graphics to go with the three 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.
Wi-Fi 6 routers have different streams of wireless connectivity, with different products capable of dealing with various amounts of connected devices as a result (essentially you can think of these as 'pipes' with capacity for a set amount of data). The best have eight or 12 streams.
What Wi-Fi 6 products are available?
Some Wi-Fi 6 products have been announced, but many are still waiting to be launched. You should see Wi-Fi 6 appear on the packaging for these new products.
So far Wi-Fi 6 products are mostly limited to high-end routers from the usual suspects - Netgear, TP-Link, Asus and D-Link.
So far these have tended to be under the premium brands from each of these companies, so Netgear's Nighthawk range, for example. As they tend to be premium devices, many have striking designs such as the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 shown here.
Netgear has also said we'll get a Wi-Fi 6 version of its Orbi mesh range soon, while we've also seen that TP-Link is bringing us a Wi-Fi 6 version of its Deco mesh system, called the X10.
Confusion from older packaging may well be a problem. 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.
Indeed, we've seen several newly-designed Wi-Fi 6 boxes that don't mention that name yet either (presumably because they were designed before the new names were introduced earlier this year).
There were problems getting Wi-Fi 6 to the final stage, which is why we're only just seeing it come to fruition. 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 later this year before it will be rubber-stamped.
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.