But the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6, isn’t just a simple speed boost. Its impact will be more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time.
This is less of a one-time speed increase and more of a future-facing upgrade designed to make sure our speeds don’t grind to a halt a few years down the road.
The short but incomplete answer: 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5.
The real answer: both of those speeds are theoretical maximums that you’re unlikely to ever reach in real-world Wi-Fi use. And even if you could reach those speeds, it’s not clear that you’d need them. The typical download speed in the US is just 72 Mbps, or less than 1 percent of the theoretical maximum speed.
But the fact that Wi-Fi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still important. That 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to a single computer. It can be split up across a whole network of devices. That means more potential speed for each device.
Wi-Fi 6 introduces some new technologies to help mitigate the issues that come with putting dozens of Wi-Fi devices on a single network. It lets routers communicate with more devices at once, lets routers send data to multiple devices in the same broadcast, and lets Wi-Fi devices schedule check-ins with the router. Together, those features should keep connections strong even as more and more devices start demanding data.
There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 upgrades it.
The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then the next, and the next. Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. Wi-Fi 6 will allow devices to communicate with up to eight.
The other new technology, OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
Last year, Wi-Fi started getting its biggest security update in a decade, with a new security protocol called WPA3. WPA3 makes it harder for hackers to crack passwords by constantly guessing them, and it makes some data less useful even if hackers manage to obtain it.
Wi-Fi 6 will start arriving on high-end phones this year, though. Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855, includes support for Wi-Fi 6, and it’s destined for the next wave of top-of-the-line phones. The Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee that a phone will have Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a good sign: Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first phones with the new processor, and it supports the newest generation of Wi-Fi.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 is likely to become even more common next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program this fall, which guarantees compatibility across Wi-Fi devices. Devices don’t need to pass that certification, but its launch will signify that the industry is ready for Wi-Fi 6’s arrival.
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