Fibre to the home can be fast. Think of it as a six-lane motorway with no speed limit. Yet once that turbo-charged data traffic hits your home, it can slow to a crawl as the motorway shrinks to a pedestrian footpath.
That’s because home networks are often slower than broadband connections. They tend to use wireless technology. Wi-Fi, the brand name for wireless networking, distributes data around almost every New Zealand home.
Chances are your internet service provider sent you a Wi-Fi router when you signed up for your broadband plan.
The problem is that Wi-Fi is usually slow. It can be a bottleneck. Or at least the Wi-Fi on your ISP-supplied router. Wi-Fi 6 goes a long way to fixing this, but you might not be ready to upgrade yet.
Ethernet where you can
Ethernet is faster and more reliable than Wi-Fi. Most Wi-Fi routers include Ethernet ports on the back.
You should use Ethernet where you can to improve data speeds. You should, at least, connect your TV to your router using an Ethernet cable direct to your router.
That way you won’t get Wi-fi hiccups in the middle of the big match or a Netflix movie.
Cables versus wireless
Ethernet has been popular for office network for decades. A few people use it for home networks. The problem is that installing Ethernet at home can be expensive and disruptive. It’s also inflexible. If you move your home office from one room to another you need to wire-in a new connection. That means more expense, more disruption.
Wireless is easier even if it is slower and prone to congestion.
There is a lot you can do about these negatives. The most obvious and, in the long term, the best option is to move to Wi-Fi 6. It is a more up-to-date version of wireless network technology.
Wi-Fi 6 can be faster than older Wi-fi, although you may not always notice much of a speed bump1. The more important thing about Wi-Fi 6 is that it works better when you have many connected devices.
And it’s likely you do.
Wi-Fi 6 eases data congestion
The average home has around 20 internet connected devices. Switched on devices will attempt to communicate with your router all the time.
The technical term for this is congestion. Unlike a lot of network jargon, it doesn’t need much explaining. Going back to the motorway analogy, congestion is when there is so much traffic things slow-down and eventually move to a crawl.
When lots of people use the same Wi-Fi router at the same time, you have data congestion. Every internet connected device in your house that is powered up will be competing with all the others to connect to your Wi-Fi network.
The technical name for Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax. When the Wi-Fi Alliance updated home wireless technology in the past the focus was on speed improvements.
Wi-Fi 6 does this. But more important it increases capacity and improves power efficiency. It will perform better when there are many devices.
The speed improvement is significant. In theory a Wi-Fi 6 router can push data through the air at 1.2Gbps. This compares with 800mbps on the earlier Wi-Fi standard.
In practice you will never see those speeds.
There are all kinds of gotchas slowing connections. The big one is that everything on the network shares the bandwidth. Your neighbours’s Wi-Fi can interfere and slow yours if you are unlucky2. Wireless data will slow down going through walls. There are other factors beyond the scope of this post.
The key thing is that you should see faster Wi-Fi 6 connections: 30 percent faster than old school Wi-Fi. You’re going to need that extra speed if you have a gigabit fibre connection.
Capacity boost from Wi-Fi 6
More speed is great. Yet the increased capacity is every better. You don’t need to know the technology behind this, but if you have a spare week, go and research Orthogonal Frequency Division Multi Access.
In effect this technology splits radio channels into smaller chunks, then sends simultaneous blocks of data through them.
Doing things this way has an interesting by-product: lower latency. This is the time it takes for a signal to do a round trip from, say, your laptop, to and from a server. Wireless latency, think of mobile data, tends to be far higher than with fixed networks.
Latency is one of those measurements where lower means better.
Lower latency is great for gamers. With a high latency connection your game rival can take a shot at you before you see them.
With lower latency you should see less lag when chatting to others on, say, a Zoom video conference. There are times when this can be a problem, although in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not essential.
The greater power efficiency in Wi-Fi means battery powered devices will run longer between charges. Again, it’s not a huge improvement when you look at a single household. Yet when millions of homes save a small amount of power we burn less fuel.
There’s another aspect of battery life that might not be of interest right now, but could be in the future. It means that small Internet-of-things devices can go years without needing a charge. This technology is now turning up in domestic products and may soon be useful.
You might, for example, want to place a security sensor by your front door. In the past it would have needed a power cable or for you to continually replace its battery. A lower power drain means you won’t need to change batteries for ages.
One last advantage of Wi-Fi 6 is that it has better security than earlier versions. It uses WPA3 which makes it harder for intruders to run a password guessing attack. Your home network can never be secure enough.
Wi-Fi 6 catches
There is a catch. You’ll need to buy a new router. They are not expensive, at the time of writing the cheapest Wi-Fi 6 routers on sales in New Zealand cost more than $300. In time ISPs will provide Wi-Fi 6 routers, a handful already do this.
A new router is only the start. Moving to Wi-Fi 6 means you will need to upgrade your devices. You won’t be able to go to a website and download a software upgrade that lets your existing devices use it.
Almost every new device now on sale comes with Wi-Fi 6. Hardware you purchased in the 18 months will probably have it. You’ll need to check. Otherwise those older devices won’t use Wi-Fi 6. That’s not a huge problem, the newer Wi-Fi 6 routers will support older devices, you just won’t see the speed benefit on this devices.
The next step up from Wi-Fi 6 is Wi-Fi 6E, for that to work, regulators need to free up 6GHz spectrum.