Do I need to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6?

As new 802.11ax routers begin to appear on shelves you might be tempted to upgrade, but Wi-Fi 6 has been designed to achieve a few specific goals and they may not benefit everyone just yet.

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of wireless network communication protocols and since it’s been in existence for a couple of years now it’s probably something you’ve heard of at this point. Yet with the first routers really only becoming available at the start of 2020 there’s a good chance you don’t actually know what Wi-Fi 6 really is, why it was created, and whether it’s worth upgrading to yet.

If you’re anything like us you’ve accumulated a lot of smart home tech over the years, but even if you’re not into installing smart speakers in every corner of your home, chances are you have a TV that can stream Netflix or a printer that’s Wi-Fi only. Between the smart lights, Wi-Fi scales, smartwatches, and network-connected gaming consoles there’s likely to be a lot more tech connected to our local networks these days and the trend doesn’t look like it’ll slow down anytime soon.

For those running full smart light arrays off a home router you’ve probably already noticed that it can impact the bandwidth you get on your smartphone, gaming PC or TV, even if you have a top notch multi-antenna MU-MIMO router.

Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) was kind of a stop-gap solution for 802.11ac that prevented congestion when many devices connected to the same network by partitioning the total available bandwidth into multiple streams.

This 2×2, 3×3 or 4×4 segmentation meant that multiple connected devices could access the router simultaneously. While this reduces wait time, it means the router needs to divide the max theoretical speed amongst the total number of available streams.

802.11ac is theoretically capable of carrying a lightning fast load of 3.5Gbps, but once you divide that by 12 (4×4) you’ve only got about 36MB/s left of transfer speed per stream, which is about the rate of a USB 2.0 connection or just under a third of a HDD write speed.

Even the best Australian NBN speeds give you only 100Mbps (12.5MB/s), so there’s no need to chuck out your current multi-antenna router just yet. However, it’s pretty clear that you wouldn’t want to constrain that 36MB/s max speed further by adding even more channels.

Which brings us to the need for Wi-Fi 6, since 12 connected devices isn’t really all that many any more (two smartphones, two gaming laptops, one PC, one TV, one wireless printer, two smart lights, two smart speakers and a smartwatch are enough to break it).

Wi-Fi 6 ups this total speed throughput to 9.6Gbps, but as you may have guessed this speed boost is used to allow for more device connections rather than bolster maximum throughput speed per device. These MU-MIMO connections have also been opened up to allow both uplink and downlink communications, which facilitate access points handling even more devices than current MU-MIMO routers.

802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) runs over the newly opened up 6GHz bandwidth and offers either seven or 14 channels to network over. This new 6GHz range offers the potential for reduced latency, faster transfer and a less congested network.

Other than this there’s really just a few minor future proofing improvements, which means Wi-Fi 6 isn’t a major protocol transformation that offers massive benefits over existing 802.11ac solutions. Most people will be fine using their current network for at least a couple of years, or at least until you have a handful of Wi-Fi 6 capable devices.

If you’re planning on buying up a tonne of Wi-Fi 6 smart home devices when they eventually land (we haven’t seen any yet), then it could be worth doing the groundwork for a future proof Wi-Fi 6 network, but it’s still a bit early to need it.

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