Wi-fi 6 FAQ

Wi-fi has num­bers now, and the sixth-gen­er­a­tion ver­sion is com­ing in 2019.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON CROSS

Since the be­gin­ning, Wi-fi net­work stan­dards have been des­ig­nated by a set of num­bers and let­ters only an en­gi­neer could love. 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11ac (there are two let­ters now?)… how can you pos­si­bly ex­pect reg­u­lar users to know what they’re buy­ing or con­nect­ing to?

In a stun­ningly ra­tio­nal move, the Wi-fi Al­liance (the in­dus­try group that sets Wi-fi stan­dards) has de­cided to dump the

con­fus­ing al­pha­bet soup and go with sim­ple ver­sion num­bers.

The net­work­ing stan­dard pre­vi­ously known as 802.11ax will now be known as Wi-fi 6, and it’s com­ing in 2019. Here are some an­swers to com­mon ques­tions about the new stan­dard.


The Wi-fi Al­liance has de­cided that sim­ply us­ing IEEE ( go.mac­world.com/ieee) stan­dard des­ig­na­tions on prod­ucts is prob­a­bly a lit­tle too con­fus­ing. Now, in­stead of see­ing routers with “802.11n” and “802.11ac” and such, you’ll see sim­ple gen­er­a­tional num­bers like “Wi-fi 3” and “Wi-fi 5.” Those 802.11 num­bers are still there, but they’re not meant to be used in mar­ket­ing and user-fac­ing menus. It’s the kind of de­ci­sion they should have made two decades ago. Here’s how the old let­ters cor­re­spond to the new “gen­er­a­tions” num­ber­ing scheme.

802.11n: Wi-fi 4

802.11a: Wi-fi 5

802.11ax: Wi-fi 6

Start­ing soon, you’ll find these num­bers on prod­ucts boxes and mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als, but they’re also meant to be used in soft­ware on your de­vices. You’ll need an up­date to your lap­top, phone, or tablet to add the sym­bols, but then you’ll be able to clearly see what kind of net­work you’re con­nect­ing to. If you see two net­works avail­able, one with a Wi-fi 4 badge and one with a Wi-fi 6 badge, it will be ob­vi­ous to nearly ev­ery­one that you should con­nect to the one with the higher num­ber for a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence.

You’ll no­tice there are no Wi-fi 1, 2, or 3 net­works. You might as­sume that those would cor­re­spond to 802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g, but the Wi-fi Al­liance has de­cided that any net­work prior to 802.11n just won’t be given any num­ber at all. They wouldn’t want to make things too easy to un­der­stand.


Wi-fi 6 (802.11ax) will con­nect to the 2.4GHZ and 5GHZ fre­quen­cies you’re used to. Its pre­de­ces­sor, 802.11ac, only op­er­ated on the 5GHZ fre­quency—if you have a router that sup­ports 2.4GHZ and 5GHZ, it uses 802.11n (Wi-fi 4) on the 2.4GHZ fre­quency and

802.11ac (Wi-fi 5) on the 5GHZ fre­quency. The new stan­dard works across both fre­quen­cies, so you’ll get a huge boost in per­for­mance at 2.4GHZ.

Wi-fi 6 is all about us­ing new tech­nolo­gies to squeeze a lot more band­width out of those same fre­quen­cies. In par­tic­u­lar, it’s fo­cused on more ef­fec­tively han­dling lots of de­vices all con­nected at once, so your real-world speeds in a house full of de­vices (or in a cof­fee shop or train sta­tion where lots of peo­ple con­nect at once) should be many times faster.

A few of the tech­nolo­gies that make Wi-fi 6 su­pe­rior to Wi-fi 5 in­clude:

OFDMA: Orthog­o­nal fre­quen­cy­di­vi­sion mul­ti­ple ac­cess (OFDMA) is a way to im­prove ef­fi­ciency of multi-user MIMO streams. Think of a check­out at the gro­cery store: old Wi-fi was one cashier check­ing out a whole lot of cus­tomers. Multi-user MIMO let four cashiers check out four lines of cus­tomers. OFDMA lets each of those four cashiers check out four cus­tomers at once, if they’ve got the time.

MU-MIMO up­link: In Wi-fi 5, multi-user MIMO (Mul­ti­ple-in­put, Mul­ti­ple-out­put) only works on the down­link con­nec­tion—from your router to your de­vice. In Wi-fi 6, it works in both di­rec­tions, so your router can si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­ceive data from dif­fer­ent de­vices on dif­fer­ent chan­nels all at once. And the MU-MIMO chan­nels have been boosted from a max­i­mum of four in Wi-fi 5 to eight in Wi-fi 6.

Tar­get Wake Time: Im­proves the sleep and wake ef­fi­ciency on mo­bile de­vices like phones and lap­tops. This can help re­duce power con­sump­tion and re­duce con­ges­tion on crowded net­works, too. It was ini­tially de­vel­oped to help with low­power IOT (In­ter­net of Things) de­vices, but it could be a big ben­e­fit to Wi-fi on phones, tablets, and lap­tops too.

Wi-fi 6 will in­clude sev­eral other tech­nolo­gies to help im­prove ef­fi­ciency and deal with con­gested net­works like dy­namic frag­men­ta­tion and spa­cial fre­quency re­use. Es­sen­tially, it’s a bunch of new tech­nolo­gies (many of which are cur­rently used in LTE net­works) to get a lot more data to more de­vices us­ing the same amount of fre­quency band­width.


The the­o­ret­i­cal max­i­mum band­width of a sin­gle stream is 3.5 gi­ga­bits per se­cond, but up to four streams can be de­liv­ered to a sin­gle de­vice, which means a max­i­mum of up to 14 gi­ga­bits per se­cond!

In re­al­ity, you’ll never see any­where close to that num­ber. What’s im­por­tant about Wi-fi 6 is not just the max­i­mum speed on pa­per, but that it’s specif­i­cally de­signed to de­liver faster real-world per­for­mance in the kind of net­works we see to­day, with lots of con­nected de­vices

In­stead of com­pli­cated num­bers and let­ters, Wi-fi net­works will just have clear gen­er­a­tion num­bers.

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