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Wi-Fi 6 — a better way to do wireless

Fibre to the home can be fast. It’s like a six-lane motorway with no speed limit. Yet once that turbo-charged data traffic hits the home, it can slow to a pedestrian crawl.

That’s because home networks tend to use wireless technology. Wi-Fi, the brand name for wireless networking, distributes data in almost every New Zealand home.

Fixed line Ethernet is the faster option. Use it where you can to improve data speeds. You should, at least, connect your TV to your router using an Ethernet cable. That way you won’t get Wi-fi hiccups in the middle of the big match or a Netflix movie.

Cables versus wireless

Beyond that, it’s down to how much you need all that gigabit fibre speed. Stringing cables around the place is expensive. It can be bothersome. Using wireless is far easier, even if it is slow and suffers from 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 the most modern 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 explaining.

When lots of people use the same Wi-Fi router at the same time, you have a data bottleneck.

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.

Greater capacity

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 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 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

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.

Power efficiency

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.

One last advantage of Wi-Fi 6 is that it has better security than earlier versions. It has WPA3 which makes it harder for intruders to run a password guessing attack. You can never be secure enough.

Wi-Fi 6 catches

There is a catch. You’ll need more than a new router. Wi-Fi 6 needs a hardware upgrade. 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 comes with Wi-Fi 6. Hardware you purchased in the last year may have it. You’ll need to check.

In other words you may not see much benefit upgrading your router until you buy other hardware. My phone and iPad Pro have Wi-Fi 6, but my desktop computer does not.

The other catch is that your service provider might not offer Wi-Fi 6 routers. Few do. The hardware is more expensive than older Wi-Fi routers. If you buy your own expect to pay more than $200.


  1. Mainly because you need new hardware to get the benefit. The story explains this later. ↩︎
  2. Although there are things you can do to reduce this problem ↩︎

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