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Grow Your Business Technology

Wi-Fi 6 and the Legacy of Wi-Fi Standards

Wi-Fi Standard
Credit: Denys Prykhodov

The next generation of Wi-Fi is here. Wi-Fi 6 is coming in 2019, and it's designed to offer capacity, coverage, and performance even in tough environments such as stadiums and other public venues.

Once Wi-Fi 6 is released, new routers, laptops, smartphones and other gadgets with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) chips in them will hit the market. Should your company scramble to be an early adopter of those new devices? The answer is a qualified maybe.

The new standard is designed to connect lots of devices efficiently, which is great for companies embracing mobile devices. The 802.11 standards establish how fast the data transmission speed is between the router and devices wirelessly connected to it. They also help ensure that devices stay connected to the router. And when multiple devices are connected to the router, they coordinate the distribution of data between the router and devices.

Each succeeding version of 802.11 has brought improvements to these areas.

In October 2018, Wi-Fi Alliance introduced a new naming approach to provide users with an easy-to-understand name for Wi-Fi technology. The new naming system identifies new generations of Wi-Fi with a numerical sequence including:

  • Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax. It's set to be released in 2019.
  • Wi-Fi 5 is 802.11ac.
  • Wi-Fi 4 is 802.11n.

The new terminology should help users understand what to expect from Wi-Fi, because each new generation of Wi-Fi offers new features and faster speeds.

As the next generation of Wi-Fi approaches, here's a look back at the evolution of this technology spanning about 21 years. The following are not all the versions of 802.11 – just the ones that have been most common in the devices that you buy for business or personal use.

802.11 – Published in June 1997, the first version has a top data transmission speed of 2 Mbps.

802.11a and 802.11b – Both of these were published in September 1999. The latter has a top speed of 11 Mbps, while its "a" counterpart is 54 Mbps. The tradeoff is that 802.11a has a slightly smaller broadcasting range, and its signals cannot penetrate as far, because walls and other solid barriers can more easily block it. It was mostly used in an open office environment. 802.11b devices suffered from interference by Bluetooth devices, cordless phones and microwave ovens.

802.11g – Published in June 2003, this version unites the speeds of 802.11a and the broadcasting range and reliability of 802.11b. It's backward-compatible with 802.11b, meaning that devices with 802.11b chips can connect to a router with an 802.11g chip. However, the presence of a connected 802.11b device significantly reduces the overall speed of the 802.11g network.

Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) – Published in October 2009, this version tops 600 Mbps and nearly doubles the broadcast range of its predecessors. It uses multiple antennas to hit such high speeds.

Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) – Published in December 2013, this is the version that's found in the latest, top-of-the-line routers and devices you can buy today. It was designed to meet the growing need for moving large amounts of data throughout a Wi-Fi network, such as for cloud storage services and streaming high-resolution video. Its top speed is 3.4 Gbps.

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – Expected to be published in early 2019, this version will improve on the coordination of data transmitting between the router and several devices wirelessly connected to it. It's meant to accommodate the growing use of internet-connected devices (AI assistants, cameras, lights, speakers, thermostats, etc.). The top data transmission speed is still being determined but is predicted to be up to 10.5 Gbps.

Saige Driver

Saige received her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Telecommunications from Ball State University. She is the social media strategist for Business.com and Business News Daily. She also writes reviews and articles about social media. She loves reading and her beagle mix, Millie. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.