Mobile connectivity is going through some significant changes at the moment, with the arrival of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. But what will the new standards bring, and what is Wi-Fi 6 anyway? We take a look at what the technology has to offer.

What happened to Wi-Fi 1-5?

It might seem that suddenly, out of nowhere, people are beginning to talk about Wi-Fi 6. This may well lead you to wonder why the five previous versions seemed to go completely under the radar. There’s a reason for this, as the term Wi-Fi 6 is essentially a rebranding of the latest 802.11ax standard that supersedes 802.11ac.

For years the Wi-Fi naming conventions have been, well, pretty terrible. The use of letters was often confusing, so it’s been decided by the Wi-Fi Alliance (a network of companies responsible for Wi-Fi matters) that from now on the whole thing will be simplified in order to make it easier to understand.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

To kick things off, the numbered versions will be applied to the previous standards too, so 802.11n will now be called Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5, and the aforementioned 802.11ax is Wi-Fi 6. Basically, the higher the number, the better it is.

Why should I care about Wi-Fi 6?

To quote the legendary English musician Nigel Tufnel, "It’s one louder". Wi-Fi 6 not only brings faster speeds but has also been designed to cope with the multiple devices we now have in our homes that all make demands on a wireless network.

Thanks to an updated version of MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple Input Multiple Output) from 802.11ac, and the new – and hilariously named – OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) technologies, it means the number of devices a router can talk to at the same time has doubled, while data rates have also increased.

Wi-Fi 6 uses a 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM) compared to Wi-Fi 5's 256-QAM. There are more bits per symbol – 10 bits per symbol versus 8 bits in 256 QAM – so more data can be carried, which can increase speeds by as much as 25% more than Wi-Fi 5. This is particularly useful where there is a need for high performance in areas with lots of devices.

Another Wi-Fi 6 feature called Target Wake Time means that your router can tell your device when it should wake and send or receive data, and when it should just sleep. Searching for a signal for less time will result in less power use, and should save your device's battery life. 

How fast is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is capable of topping out at 9.6Gbps, which is quite a step up from the 3.5Gbps of Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) or the frankly now rather laughable 150Mbps of Wi-Fi 4.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Not only does this combination mean that your various internet-hungry home devices should get faster connections, but busy public places like coffee shops and conference centres will be better equipped to handle the huge number of phones, tablets, and laptops simultaneously trying to get online.

Is Wi-Fi 5 the same as 5G?

No. While the names might seem similar and both mean you can access the internet on your smartphone, 5G is the new, faster standard of data that you get from your mobile supplier, whereas Wi-Fi comes from a variety of routers that include your home one and those in public places such as libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants.

Take a look at our What is 5G and when will it arrive? article for an in-depth explanation of what it has to offer.

When can I get WiFi 6?

Unlike software updates for your smartphone, Wi-Fi 6 requires specific hardware and therefore only comes with new devices. From the Samsung Galaxy S10 and iPhone 11 onwards, most modern smartphones come with Wi-Fi 6, which will be an ever-present feature in new laptops, smartphones, and tablets released post-2019.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

It's important to note that your router – or any public hotspot – will also have to be upgraded to one that is Wi-Fi 6 certified, otherwise your shiny new smartphone will just keep connecting through Wi-Fi 5 instead.

So, it might be a bit of a slow process upgrading all your hardware to the new standard, but once you’re there, your internet connection should be better than ever.

And then there's Wi-Fi 6E...

There's an enhanced version of Wi-Fi 6 called Wi-Fi 6E, which adds a new frequency – 6GHz – that means better performance for high-bandwidth activities such as streaming and video calls.

For more details read our explanation of What is Wi-Fi 6E?