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

Saige Driver
Saige Driver

Wi-Fi 6 began last year. Here's what your small business should know about Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi standards.

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

Now that Wi-Fi 6 is out, new routers, laptops, smartphones and other gadgets with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) chips in them will hit the market soon. Should your company scramble to be an early adopter of these 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 is between the router and devices wirelessly connected to it. They also help ensure that devices stay connected to the router. When multiple devices are connected to the router, they coordinate the distribution of data between the router and devices.

Wi-Fi's new naming system

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

  • Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax.
  • 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 higher speeds.

"[Wi-Fi Alliance] recently introduced 'generational names,' similar to that of cellular standards like 5G," said Felicite Moorman, CEO and co-founder of Stratis IoT. "This is intended to assist consumers in optimizing their experiences when choosing devices and products, show technological evolution, and increase the adoption of advancing devices."

The latest and fastest Wi-Fi standard

The latest and fastest Wi-Fi standard is based on 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, but devices sold today are still mostly based on the 802.11ac standard, or Wi-Fi 5, Moorman explained to Business News Daily.

However, new hardware that supports the newest Wi-Fi should be on its way soon, and some new technology supports it now, such as Apple's iPhone 11. The new standard could be helpful to many businesses, but especially to companies that want to connect a lot of devices. While faster Wi-Fi is definitely helpful, Wi-Fi 6 is also the most efficient and designed to handle many devices.

"Each generation of Wi-Fi is intended to be more robust than its predecessor, and so the Alliance delivers with Wi-Fi 6," said Moorman. "The improvements include … higher data transmission at faster speeds, increased capacity and, perhaps most innovative, improved performance where there are many connected devices (and aren't they all?)."

The new Wi-Fi could be very beneficial to some businesses, but some experts believe it won't be widely adopted for a couple years because of its price tag.

"It is the fastest Wi-Fi standard, but due to its expensiveness, we think that it will become common in industry and homes around 2023 or maybe 2025," said Tim Uittenbroek, founder of BlinkList.

What are the different Wi-Fi standards?

As the next generation of Wi-Fi approaches, here's a look back at the evolution of this technology, spanning about 21 years. There are almost 20 Wi-Fi standards, but only six have been widely adopted, according to Moorman.

The following are not all the versions of 802.11 – just the ones that have been most common in the devices that you'd 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 trade-off 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 open office environments. 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): Wi-Fi 5 was published in December 2013. This is the version of Wi-Fi that you find in modern, high-end routers and devices. The main goal of Wi-Fi 5 was to address challenges related to the movement of large data sets through networks. This is especially useful for cloud storage services and streaming platforms. Wi-Fi 5 speeds top out at 3.4 Gbps.

  • Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): Published in September 2019, this version improves on the coordination of transmitting data 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 it's predicted to be up to 10.5 Gbps.

Frequently asked questions about Wi-Fi standards

These FAQs on Wi-Fi leave many people scratching their heads. Business News Daily asked the experts to explain.

Is Wi-Fi a protocol?

"Wi-Fi, as maintained by the Alliance and based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) wireless communication protocol 802.11, is a standard," Moorman said.

What is the maximum range of Wi-Fi?

"Wi-Fi range depends on bands – 2.4GHz or 5GHz," Uittenbroek told Business News Daily. "The first one reaches up to 150 feet and the latter approximately one-third – 50 feet. Antenna orientation and additional power boost antennas can maximize the reach of Wi-Fi signals."

Moorman agrees. She explained that Wi-Fi typically ranges up to 125 feet, but it depends on the type of infrastructure obstructing transmission. "Open-air testing has shown a range of 450 feet or greater."

What are the three types of wireless connections?

The three major types of wireless connections are LAN, MAN and WAN.

"LAN signals only revolve around small geographical areas, so it can only work for a small group of people or places, like hospitals and restaurants, etc.," Uittenbroek said. "It allows [a] single pair of devices to communicate and is good for fast file sharing because of less congestion."

MAN is designed to cover large areas such as cities and to allow multiple computers to work at the same time. WAN is used for wide-area and country coverage.

"The congestion increases from LAN to MAN, and then WAN has the highest delay and congestion as compared to those two," Uittenbroek told Business News Daily.

Image Credit: ijeab / Getty Images
Saige Driver
Saige Driver,
Business News Daily Writer
Saige received her bachelor's degree in journalism and telecommunications from Ball State University. She is the social media coordinator for Aptera and also writes for business.com and Business News Daily. She loves reading and her beagle mix, Millie.