Wi-Fi — the familiar name of the 802.11x networking standards — is an essential cord-cutting invention. Just imagine how your smartphone or tablet would be without your home Wi-Fi.
So, in a nutshell, Wi-Fi is an alternative to network cables, allowing devices to connect to a network wirelessly. But the world of Wi-Fi can be confusing due to its many speed standards, frequency bands, features, and other stuff.
This post will help you understand Wi-Fi at least and the next guy without getting overwhelmed in the networking jargon. Wireless network connectivity sure is a complicated topic, but pay a bit of close attention, and you’ll have some fun along the way.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on February 15, 2018. It’s one of my first posts on DKT. I wrote it when Wi-Fi 6 had not even been available, and today there’s Wi-Fi 6E. This latest update, published on May 24, 2021, aims to paint an up-to-date overview picture of home Wi-Fi.
Table of Contents
How does Wi-Fi work?
Wi-Fi uses radio frequencies to transmit data. It shares the same principle as any other technologies that use radio waves, including the radio itself.
AM and FM radio broadcasting stations use frequencies measured in Megahertz (MHz), Kilohertz (kHz), or even lower. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, uses much higher rates measured in Gigahertz (GHz).
Specifically, Wi-Fi uses the 2.4Ghz, 5GHz, 6GHz, and the (rarely-used) 60GHz frequency bands. You’ll find more information on these below. To understand frequencies, though, we need to know what Hertz is, specifically what constitutes one Hertz.
What is Hertz?
Heinrich Hertz is a German physicist who conclusively proved the existence of electromagnetic waves in the late 19th century so that now we can take them for granted.
In the simplest terms, Hertz is the number of radio wave crests — or wave cycles — in 1 second.
Fill your bathtub with water. Wait till the surface is completely serene. Now, throw in a little rubber duck. Note the waves travels outward. Pick one. Count the number of times the wave reaches its highest point in a second. If it’s once, you get one Hertz; twice means you have two Hertz, and so on.
OK, that’s the idea — don’t try too hard on the counting because it’ll get impossible very fast using our naked eyes.
That’s because Wi-Fi uses frequencies in GHz. For example, 5GHz means there are 5,000,000,000 wave crests in a second. That’s way too many crests per second to tally up, so do what I do: take science’s word for it!
In a nutshell, the higher the frequency, the closer the distance between two consecutive wave crests, which translates into a shorter length the wave itself can travel. However, that also means the more information you can put on it.
And this information travels between pieces of Wi-Fi hardware. Let’s find out what they are.
To use Wi-Fi, we need a signal broadcaster and a receiver. They are the two ends of a network connection. Specifically, the former emit Wi-Fi signals for the latter to catch on to form a wireless link.
For this to happen, the broadcaster can make the Wi-Fi an open network so any clients can connect to, or a secure network where only authorized clients can connect via a password. (More on this in the WPA section of each Wi-Fi standard below.)
Though mostly implied, this is called the “infrastructure” mode. In this mode, which is the primary way to use Wi-Fi — one broadcaster can host multiple receivers, but a receiver can connect to just one broadcaster at a time.
Technically, two receivers can connect directly in the “ad-hoc” mode. But this mode has little impact in practical, real-world application.
Typically, a Wi-Fi broadcaster is always called a wireless access point (WAP) or access point (AP) for short. However, you more often run into Wi-Fi routers. They are standard routers with built-in AP(s). All home routers nowadays are presumed to be Wi-Fi routers.
The receiver is always a Wi-Fi adapter. In most cases, you do not see an actual adapter since it resides inside the device (laptop or smartphone) you’re using. But if you have a computer that doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi (or Wi-Fi of the standard you want), you can upgrade or change that out fairly easily.
A device — a computer or a mobile phone — with a built-in Wi-Fi capability is called a Wi-Fi client or just a Wi-Fi device.
All Wi-Fi broadcasters and receivers have antennas. If you don’t see them, that’s because they are hidden on the inside or blended with other (metal) parts of the device, like the chassis.
Once we have a broadcaster and a receiver, a Wi-Fi connection’s speed depends on the Wi-Fi standard they use.
Home Wi-Fi explained and their standards
Wi-Fi standards are the way we manipulate the frequencies mentioned above. They are necessary partly because we can’t use just any frequencies. They are regulated — the hardware you buy is restricted to a specific spectrum.
And the regulation is a good thing because devices have to agree on many standardized procedures to communicate via radio successfully.
You can buy your own ham radio and make it use any frequencies, but in this day and age, that’s illegal. Also, your device might be useless since nobody uses the same frequencies to communicate with you.
So, Wi-Fi standards are specific spectrums determined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Each time a spectrum is available for Wi-Fi use, we have a new standard.
Since 1999 there have been six major Wi-Fi standards: 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11ax. (The last one has an extension called 802.11axe).
Newer standards are always faster than the older ones but are also backward compatible if they use the same frequency. Consequently, for the most part, you can use Wi-Fi devices of different generations together.
Wireless devices connect using the standard they support, and you can’t tell which one they use unless you test the speed, use specific equipment, or view its status via an application. Wi-Fi signals are invisible. Literally, there’s no way to tell them apart by looking at the air.
If you find the Wi-Fi standards’ name above weird and hard to pronounce, you’re not alone. The way they are, it’s hard to tell which is which, and they are all a mouthful to say.
That is where the relatively new naming convention comes into play.
Wi-Fi naming convention
On October 3, 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced a new Wi-Fi naming convention using simple numbers.
Specifically, 802.11ax is called Wi-Fi 6 — it’s the 6th generation –, 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5, etc. (The extension of 802.11ax is called Wi-Fi 6E — you’ll learn all about them below).
This new naming convention is a welcome change. You don’t need to wonder which is better between ac, n, or ax anymore. And it just makes sense that a higher number of Wi-Fi means a newer and faster standard.
Some Wi-Fi clients even show their connection with this new convention, Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 5, or Wi-Fi 4. Specifically, you might see a tiny number (be it 4, 5, 6, or 6E) next to the Wi-Fi symbol on your devices.
Consequently, when multiple Wi-Fi networks of different Wi-Fi standards are available at a location, you can pick one that best matches your device.
Faster Wi-Fi doesn’t necessarily translate into faster Internet because Wi-Fi and the Internet are two different things.
By the way, the first three standards (802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g) are now obsolete. And that’s great because you only need to care about Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and later.
Wi-Fi standards in brief
You’ll learn more about Wi-Fi bands, standards, and their other attributes below, but briefly, here’s something to keep in mind:
A Wi-Fi connection’s speed between two direct parties shares the same principle of a network connection — it’s always that of the slowest party. Also, the connection takes place in a single band, using a fixed channel, at a given time.
For example, if you use a Wi-Fi 6 client with a Wi-Fi 5 router, the connection speed will be that of the latter. And when you use a dual-band client with a dual-band (or tri-band router), the connection will take place using the 5GHz or 2.4GHz band at a time.
A Wi-Fi band also has terrible overhead and its real-world bandwidth are just half or two-thirds of its theoretical speed. That bandwidth, by the way, is shared between all of its connected devices.
Wi-Fi: Partial bandwidth and always Half-Duplex. Data moves using a portion of a band (spectrum), known as a channel, in one direction at a time. You can think of Wi-Fi as the walkie-talkie in voice communication.
Wired: Full bandwidth and (generally) Full-Duplex. Data travel using the entire cable’s bandwidth and in both ways simultaneously. That’s similar to a phone call in voice communication.
Wi-Fi beats wired in terms of convenience and hardware design options. Wired beats Wi-Fi in everything else.
The table below includes all current Wi-Fi standards and their brief specifications.
|Common Name||Standard||Availability||Top Speed per Stream||Operating |
|Security Protocol||Frequency Bands||Status|
|N/A||802.11g||2003||54Mbps||20 MHz||Open |
or Wireless N
|60 GHz||Limited Use|
|Wi-Fi 7||802.11be||2023 |
With that, let’s continue with Wi-Fi bands.
Wi-Fi bands and their intricacies (range, channels, and streams)
Wi-Fi bands are the radio frequencies on which the Wi-Fi signals travel between an AP and a client. When it comes to Wi-Fi, we need to know the following bands: 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz.
There’s the 60GHz band, but it’s hardly useful or used at all — more in the 802.11ad standard below.
Other than the base speeds mentioned in the table above, each of these bands’ most significant and common attributes is their ranges. Let’s find out!
Wi-Fi range, in theory
The way radio waves work, a broadcaster emits signals outward as a sphere around itself — the range is the radius of this sphere.
The lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in Megahertz — you can listen to the same station in a vast area, like an entire region or a city.
Wi-Fi uses 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies — all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That’s not to mention a home Wi-Fi broadcaster has limited power.
But these bands share the following: The higher frequencies (in Hz), the higher the bandwidth (speeds), the shorter the ranges and the more bandwidth progressively lost over increasing distance.
Generally, bigger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones. Still, it’s impossible to accurately determine the actual content of each because it fluctuates a great deal and depends heavily on the environment.
That said, here are my estimates of home Wi-Fi broadcasters’ ranges determined via personal experiences:
These were determined in the best-case scenario, i.e., open outdoor space on a sunny day. Also, note that Wi-Fi ranges don’t die abruptly. They degrade gradually as you get farther away from the broadcaster. The distances mentioned below are when a client still has a signal strong enough for a meaningful connection.
- 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200ft (61m). However, this is the most popular band, also used by non-Wi-Fi devices like cordless phones or TV remotes. Its real-world speeds suffer severely from interference and other things. As a result, for years, this band has been considered a backup, applicable when the range is more important than speed.
- 5GHz: This band has much faster speeds than the 2.4GHz band but shorter ranges that max out at around 175ft (50m).
- 6GHz: This is the latest band available, starting with Wi-Fi 6E. It has the same ceiling speed as the 5GHz band but with less interference and overheads. As a result, its actual real-world rate is faster. However, due to the higher frequency, it has just about 70% of the range, which maxes out at about 130ft (40m).
Some might consider these numbers generous, and others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.
Wi-Fi range in real-life
Similarly-specced Wi-Fi broadcasters generally deliver the same coverage.
Specifically, they are all the same if you measure the signal reach alone. What differentiates them is their sustained speeds and signal stability — how the quality of their Wi-Fi signals changes as you increase the distance. And that generally varies from one model to another.
In real-world usage, chances are your router’s Wi-Fi range is much shorter than you’d like. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interferences and obstacles.
While the Wi-Fi range doesn’t depend on the channel width, the wider a channel, the less stable it might become — it’s more susceptible to interference.
The new 6GHz band generally doesn’t suffer from interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz have a long list of things that can harm their ranges.
Common 2.4 GHz interference sources
- Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
- 2.4GHz cordless phones
- Fluorescent bulbs
- Bluetooth radios (minimal)
- Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources
- Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
- 5GHz cordless phones
- Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Walls and large objects
As for obstacles, walls are the most problematic since they are everywhere. Different types of walls block Wi-Fi signals differently, but no wall is good for Wi-Fi. Large objects, like big appliances or elevators, are bad, too.
Here are my rough estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals — generally use the low number for the 2.4GHz and the high one for the 5GHz, add another 10%-15% to the 5GHz’s if you use the 6GHz band:
- A thin porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals — a router’s range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
- A thick porous wall: 20% to 40%
- A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50%
- A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.
Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to know how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a specific spot in your home. A simple rule is that more walls equal worse coverage.
Wi-Fi channels, in a nutshell, are a small portion (section) of each Wi-Fi band. If a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, the channels are lanes.
A Wi-Fi connection must use a particular channel at a given time. (Just like a car must use a particular lane at any given time.)
The channel width (or bandwidth) decides how fast a link is — the amount of bandwidth it can deliver. That’s like a bike lane can handle less traffic than a car lane but is still more capable than the sidewalk for pedestrians.
In return, a wider channel also tends to suffer more from interference, hence, is less stable than a narrower one. But the specificity of that depends on the environment. In an ideal air space, wider is always better.
Channels are measured in Megahertz (MHz). There are four width levels, including 20MHz, 40MHz, 80MHz, and 160MHz.
We need multiple contiguous channels to make up a wider channel. So a 40GHz channel includes two consecutive 20GHz channels, an 80MHz channel requires two contiguous 40GHz channels (or four 20MHz ones), etc.
As a result, a Wi-Fi band can include either more low channels or fewer high channels. The 160MHz channel width is so wide that we can have only two out of the 5GHz band. Most importantly, both require the use of DFS channels.
What’s DFS, exactly?
Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) channels
Only available on the 5GHz band, DFS channels are special ones that share the air space with radar signals which have the right-of-way. So a DFS channel is like a bike lane that you can drive your car on, but only when there’s no cyclist around.
Normally, these channels work just like any other channel. However, when radar signals are present, which often happens if you live within tens of miles of an airport or weather station, the router will move its signals to the next unoccupied DFS channel.
During this channel-switching process, your device might get disconnected briefly. That said, the use of the 160MHz, which requires DFS, is not always a good thing.
Not all clients support DFS, so most routers don’t use these channels by default for compatibility reasons.
160MHz vs 160MHz (80+80) channels
To avoid DFS, some Wi-Fi chips have the 160MHz (80+80) mode by combining two non-contiguous 80MHz channels into a single one — like in the case of the Netgear RAX120.
The 160MHz (80+80) approach is a hack and doesn’t deliver the same performance as a natural 160MHz channel. In fact, it hardly works in real-world testing and is considered abandoned, especially with the potential opening of the 5GHz band’s UNII4 portion.
Overlapping channels are those that multiple types of traffic can use — it’s like a bike can go on a lane designed for cars — and tend to be more susceptible to interference.
On the other hand, non-over-lapping channels are like lanes explicitly intended for a type of traffic, such as a railroad or a car-pool lane.
Wi-Fi streams — often referred to as spatial or data streams — are how a Wi-Fi signal travels. A stream determines the base speed of a frequency band in a Wi-Fi standard. The more streams a band can handle, the faster its rate is.
You can think of the streams as the vehicle that uses the road. Depending on the cargo space’s size (or the number of trailers it can pull), a vehicle can move more or fewer goods per single trip.
Depending on the hardware specs, a Wi-Fi connection uses a single-stream, dual-stream (2×2), three-stream (3×3), or four-stream (4×4). Right now, 4×4 is the highest, though there might be even more in the future.
Note that we’re talking about the number of streams of a single band here. Starting with Wi-Fi 6 — more below — many networking vendors combine the streams of all bands in a broadcaster into a larger number, like 8 streams or 12 streams.
That’s misleading since a Wi-Fi connection takes place in one fixed channel of a particular band at a time, similar to the fact a vehicle can use only one lane of a road at a time so it’s irrelevant to use the number of lanes found in all roads to insinuate the performance of one particular lane, road or vehicle.
As you can see in the table above, each Wi-Fi band and standard have a different base single-stream speed. But in all cases, the concept of multiple streams remains the same.
While both a car and a bike can tow a trailer using their own road, the size of their trailers are different.
Important note: In a particular Wi-Fi connection, the amount of streams being used is the lesser the parties involved. For example, if you use a 4×4 router with a 2×2 client, you’ll have a 2×2 connection.
Bands vs Channels vs Streams
Bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz), channels (in 20/40/80/160MHz width), and streams (2×2, 3×3, 4×4, etc.) are items that make Wi-Fi confusing. Here’s a crude analogy:
A Wi-Fi band is like a road, channels are lanes, and streams are vehicles. On the same road, wider lanes are for larger vehicles. Vehicles with larger cargo spaces (2×2, 3×3, 4×4, etc.) can carry more goods (data) per trip (connection). Streams are like cars vs buses.
A Wi-Fi connection takes place on a single channel (lane) of a single band (road) at a time, but the more channels and bands there are, the more options and hardware devices you can use simultaneously to deliver better speeds. That’s because you can combine multiple contiguous channels (lanes) into a larger one.
The actual data transmission is always that of the lowest denominator. Similarly, a bicycle can carry just one person at a relatively slow speed, even when you ride it on an open freeway.
The evolution of Wi-Fi
Now that you know Wi-Fi works, let’s find out how it progresses via different standards. Other than faster speeds, each new revision of Wi-Fi gets more features and better security.
Again, since the older standards are now obsolete, we’ll start with Wi-Fi 4.
Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n)
Wi-Fi 4, also known as Wireless-N, uses 20MHz and 40MHz channel widths and up to three streams (3×3). A single stream delivers 150Mbps (40MHz).
Wi-Fi 4 is when we also have:
- The designations of combined speeds
- The popular use of WPS and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security method.
This is when a Wi-Fi broadcaster operates in 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz at a time.
Dual-band is a compatibility necessity. Some Wi-Fi devices only use the 2.4GHz band, and others use the 5GHz. So for devices to work interchangeably, regardless of their standard, dual-band support is a necessity.
A dual-band broadcaster has two access points, one for each band. A dual-band client similarly has two wireless receivers.
Keep in mind that “dual” doesn’t mean you’ll see two hardware units. Instead, one physical access point (or router or adapter) has two hardware components on the inside.
Dual-band broadcasters (routers, access points) are generally concurrent (or true) dual-band, meaning they can work on both bands simultaneously. There were once selectable dual-band broadcasters — supporting the obsolete 802.11a and 802.11b/g standards — that operate on one band at a time.
All receivers (adapters/clients), dual-band or not, can only connect to a broadcaster using one band at a time. This is like a car can only use one lane of a road at a given time.
Combined speed designation
With Wi-Fi 4, networking vendors use the N designations, where N is short for 802.11n.
For example, they called a dual-band dual-stream (2×2) Wi-Fi 4 router an N600 router. The number following N is the combined ceiling speeds of both bands (300Mbps on the 2.4Ghz and 300Mbps on the 5Ghz). Similarly, three-stream (3×3) routers are now classified as N900.
This type of naming continues with newer Wi-Fi standards.
MIMO stands for multiple-input and multiple-output. It allows a pair of broadcaster and receiver to handle multiple data streams at a time. The more streams there are, the faster the connection is.
Again, MIMO started with Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and works on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. Later on, MIMO is often referred to as single-user MIMO or SU-MIMO, thanks to the introduction of MU-MIMO or multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output in Wi-Fi 5.
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)
First introduced in 2006 by Cisco, WPS became popular with Wi-Fi 4. This is a quick way to allow a client to connect to a Wi-Fi network by pressing a button on the router and then on a client.
WPS saves you from the hassle of manually typing in the Wi-Fi password, but it could pose security risks in some instances. Nonetheless, it remains in later standards.
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)
Wi-Fi 4 is also when the new Wi-Fi protected setup Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) became widely adopted.
Officially available in 2003, WPA replaced the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security method laden with vulnerabilities.
WPA uses a common configuration called WPA-PSK (Pre-Shared Key). The security keys used by this method are 256-bit in length, much better than the 64-bit and 128-bit keys of WEP.
Initially, for encryption, WPA uses the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), which employs a dynamic per-packet key system that’s more secure than WEP’s fixed key system. Later on, WPA gets an even better encryption standard called Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
During its entire life, WPA allows users to choose between TKIP and AES. Besides WPA, Wi-Fi 4 hardware also supports WEP for backward compatibility since some legacy clients don’t support WPA.
While secure, WPA is vulnerable to hacking, especially via Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) mentioned above.
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
This standard operates only on the 5GHz band and the base single stream speed of around 433Mbps (80MHz) and can deliver up to four streams at a time (4×4), hence up to around 1733Mbps (4 x 433Mbps) speed.
Some Wi-Fi 5 broadcasters support the new 160MHz to deliver even faster speed. However, very few Wi-Fi 5 clients support this channel width.
On the 5GHz band, the standard is backward compatible with Wi-Fi 4. Also, a Wi-Fi 5 router/access point always includes a Wi-Fi 4 access point on the 2.4GHz band. For this reason, any Wi-Fi 5 broadcaster will support all existing Wi-Fi clients.
With Wi-Fi 5 comes the addition of:
- Traditional Tri-band
- Beam Forming
- The adoption of the WPA2 security method
- Wi-Fi mesh system
Generally, this means a broadcaster has three access points of different bands.
Traditionally, this means it has one 2.4GHz band and two of 5GHz bands, all working simultaneously. A tri-band broadcaster can serve more 5GHz clients simultaneously than a dual-band router before slowing down.
There’s now a new type of tri-band with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E — more below.
Wi-Fi 5’s AC designations
Similar to the N designations above, networking vendors now combine the speeds of all bands into new names for Wi-Fi 5 routers. These names start with AC, where AC is short for 802.11ac.
Different vendors might use different numbers depending on how they decide to round up (or down) the total bandwidth, mostly for marketing purposes. So, they are not consistent throughout the industry.
Keep in mind that the numbers following AC are not the top speed of a single connection but the total bandwidth of all bands.
That’s like calling your flying car (when you have one!), which can run at 60 miles per hour and fly at 120Mph, a 180Mph vehicle. That is misleading since the car can only run or fly at a time. But networking vendors love to use this as a marketing ploy.
Beamforming is a feature where the broadcaster automatically focuses its signals in a specific direction of a receiver to increase efficiency and, therefore, speed.
Beamforming is only available on the broadcaster side, and it’s generally hard to gauge its effectiveness.
Commercially available in 2006, the WPA2 is an improved version of WPA. The Biggest change is the mandatory use of the AES encryption method and the introduction of the Counter Cipher Mode with Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol (CCMP) as the replacement for TKIP.
Wi-Fi 5 hardware still supports WPA for backward compatibility. The support for WEP was also available initially but slowly phased out in newer hardware.
While WPA2 is much more secure than WPA, it’s not 100% hack-proof and is also susceptible to hacking, again via the use of WPS. The chance of getting a WPA2 security method hack is minimal, however.
This feature is part of Wi-Fi 5 Wave 2 — an enhanced version of 802.11ac. MU-MIMO allows multiple devices to receive various data streams at the same time.
More specifically, in a MIMO network, the broadcaster handles just one Wi-Fi client at a time, first come, first served. So if you have multiple clients, they have to stay in line and take turns to receive data packages. It’s like when there’s just one bartender in the club.
On the other hand, in an MU-MIMO network, the broadcaster can simultaneously serve up to four (possibly more in the future) Wi-Fi clients. It’s like having a few bartenders in the club.
That said, it’s important to note that even in a MIMO network, a router can switch between clients quite fast, and most of the time, you won’t experience any delay or slow down at all.
Consequently, unless you have many — a dozen or so — simultaneously active clients, you won’t see the benefit of MU-MIMO. Also, this feature only works on the downlink and only on the 5GHz band.
Most routers, if not all, new routers and access points support MU-MIMO.
Wi-Fi mesh system
Wi-Fi mesh systems use multiple broadcasters together to form a seamless network to cover a large property. This Wi-Fi solution type starts with Wi-Fi 5, specifically with the eero, first introduced in 2016.
Mesh systems come in all different flavors to deliver different speeds and coverage grades to fit different needs. You can read more about them in this post.
First introduced in 2009 as WiGig, this standard was initially one on its own and didn’t become part of the Wi-Fi ecosystem until 2013.
802.11ad operates at 60 GHz and has super-fast wireless speeds of up to 7 Gbps.
However, it has a super-short range of fewer than 10 feet (3m). It also can’t penetrate walls or objects, making it impractical as a wireless networking standard.
So, the 802.11ad was available briefly as a docking solution for a laptop — a quick way to connect devices at a close distance, within a line of sight. Due to this extreme shortcoming, this standard has suffered from low adoption rates.
An 802.11ad router, such as the Netgear Nighthawk X10, always includes 802.11ac and 802.11n access points to work with existing Wi-Fi clients. But, generally, you can probably skip this standard.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
802.11ax is the latest generation of Wi-Fi and became commercially in early 2019.
This new standard operates in both 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands. On the former, it supports the 160MHz channel and has a base single-stream speed of 600Mbps.
So far, on the broadcaster side, we have 4×4 routers that can deliver up to 4800Mbps of wireless bandwidth. On the receiver side, we only have 2×2 adapters.
The speeds of Wi-Fi 6 are a complicated matter, and I wrote a long post on the subject. Other than that, with this standard, there are a few new noteworthy features, including
- Target Wake Time
OFDMA – More efficiency
Wi-Fi 6 uses a new technology called orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), a mouthful name for frequency division multiplexing.
Specifically, the technique divides each channel into many sub-channels of different frequencies of their own. These “mini” frequencies stack on top of one another to deliver much better efficiency.
You can think of OFDMA as an enhanced version of MU-MIMO. If MU-MIMO is like having multiple bartenders (instead of just one as in MIMO), OFDMA takes it up a big notch by using robotic bartenders; each can serve numerous customers at a time.
Target Wake Time – Better battery life
Wi-Fi 6 further improves battery life than Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) partly because it requires less time to transmit the same amount of data. Most significantly, however, it has a new feature called wake time scheduling or Target Wake Time (TWT).
TWT allows a Wi-Fi adapter to quickly go to sleep when idle (even for a very brief time) and automatically wake up when needed. It’s similar to having a car that automatically turns off its engine at a red light and automatically starts when you step on the gas.
This is the latest security method that was introduced in 2018 to do away with WPA2. Initially, not all Wi-Fi 6 devices support WPA3 but all will via firmware update. Some latest Wi-Fi 5 hardware also supports this method as an option.
Wi-Fi 6E is the latest Wi-Fi standard that was commercially available in 2021. It’s not really standard of itself but rather an extension of Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6E has all the attributes of Wi-Fi 6, but with one exception: It uses an entirely new 6GHz frequency band. As a result, it has more spectrum space and can deliver up to seven 160MHz channels, or fourteen 80MHz ones.
Wi-Fi 6E has the same ceiling speed as Wi-Fi 6, but it can deliver this speed more easily. In return, Wi-Fi 6E has a shorter range than Wi-Fi 6.
Like the move to the 5GHz band in Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 6E requires new hardware. As a result, we now have a new type of tri-band where hardware devices need to include all three bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz) so that they can always work with one another.
Mandatory WPA3 and Enhance Open (OWE) protocol
In terms of security, with Wi-Fi 6E, WPA3 is now mandatory. All 6GHz devices must use it and no longer support WPA2 or any earlier security method.
However, for backward compatibility, Wi-Fi 6E broadcasters still support WPA2 and even WPA for their 5GHz and 2.4Ghz bands.
On top of that, for those who don’t need or want to password-protect their Wi-Fi network, Wi-Fi 6E now uses Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Enhanced Open protocol, which:
“[…] provides protections in scenarios where user authentication is not desired or distribution of credentials impractical.”
Examples of such places are hotels, cafes, and airports.
The idea of Enhanced Open, also called Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE) per some vendors, is that it encrypts each connection to an open Wi-Fi network with a known cryptography mechanism.
As a result, OWE-supported parties get protection against hacking. However, when a non-OWE client connects to an OWE broadcaster, it’ll treat it as a typical open network.
Wi-Fi 6E is slated to be widely available in late 2021 or early 2022. For more, I wrote about it in great detail in this post.
For the past two decades, Wi-Fi has become one of the essential technology in our daily life. Over the years, it has evolved so much, now delivering connection speeds tens of times faster than when it first became available to the mass.
And Wi-Fi 6E is not the last revision. So the question is, will Wi-Fi ever be fast and reliable enough to replace network cables? That future remains to be seen.