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What are Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E?

After sticking with the same old Wi-Fi standard for a long time, we’ve recently seen Wi-Fi 6 come to fruition, swiftly followed by Wi-Fi 6E, an enhanced version. So, what is Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, and do you need them? Here’s everything that you need to know.

Wi-Fi standards used to be known by their IEEE names, so Wi-Fi 6 was originally introduced as 801.11ax in April 2018. As these names can be confusing, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to simplify its naming conventions, so you can easily tell which standard is newer. Hence, we now have Wi-Fi 6, the successor to the older Wi-Fi 5 standard (previously known as 802.11ac.

Although the standard was announced in 2018, it’s taken quite a long time for products, especially affordable ones, to become available. However, we’re now at the point where the bulk of new routers support at least Wi-Fi 6, as do all of the latest phones, laptops and even other devices, such as smart speakers.

Wi-Fi 6E products have only just started to become available, with the Netgear Orbi RBKE963 the first mesh system that we’ve tested to support this. We’ll explain how Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E differ from each other and what the main benefits of each are.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Whether you call it Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax, the newer standard offers theoretical speeds of up to 9.6Gbps, although one of the main goals of the standard is to make Wi-Fi work better with multiple devices. There are a few fundamental changes to the way that Wi-Fi 6 works.

First, the standard has improved the number of bits that can be transmitted at the same time. Wi-Fi uses a technique called Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). Wi-Fi 5 used 512-QAM, which let the system transmit eight bits at once; Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM, which lets 10 bits be transmitted at the same time. That gives a 25% speed improvement.

Next, Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which breaks a wireless channel down into small chunks, so that each client gets its own dedicated bit of bandwidth. It’s similar to how a post truck can be packed with letters for different people, and separated out at the end.

There’s also been a boost to MU-MIMO. With this technology, a router has a set number of streams for upload and download. For example, an 8×8 router has eight upload and eight download streams. With MU-MIMO, a stream can be directed at a client, giving them dedicated bandwidth. There’s a choice on how this is done. For example, a 2×2 client could connect with both streams to increase performance, letting our 8×8 router support up to four clients in this way; however, the router could connect eight clients directly using a single stream each instead.

The important thing is that the more streams you have the easier it is for the router to support more clients.

MU-MIMO was introduced with Wi-Fi 5, but only for downloads, but Wi-Fi 6 makes the technology bi-directional. And, MU-MIMO can be used with OFDMA at the same time, improving the response and dedicated bandwidth that each client gets.

On the 5GHz band, channel width has been doubled from 80MHz to 160MHz, further increasing the amount of bandwidth available; on the congested 2.4GHz band, channel width remains at 40MHz.

Power saving is improved with Wi-Fi 6 thanks to Target Wake Time. With this technology, clients and the router can schedule when regular communications can take place. For devices that have to check in from time-to-time, such as smart sensor, this saves battery life, as the device only needs to communicate when scheduled; with the old system, the device would need to wake up, try and transmit but back off if the Wi-Fi network was in use, then try again.

Target Wake Time won’t make a difference on your laptop, which will communicate a lot more, but for sensors, smart home devices and the like, this technology should improve communication and improve battery life.

Wi-Fi 6 is a standard that works on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, so everything you read above applies to both. As a comparison, Wi-Fi 5 was a 5GHz standard only, and routers still used the older 802.11n specification for the 2.4GHz band.

As a result, Wi-Fi 6 delivers its features across all bands, giving more total high-quality bandwidth; however, devices will still only connect to one network type at a time: routers can either present two separate channels or have a single network name and send connecting devices to the best channel based on speed, range and capabilities.

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6E has all of the features mentioned above for Wi-Fi 6, but it also introduces a new 6GHz channel into the mix. While this channel has less range than 5GHz and 2.4GHz networks, it’s built for speed as there’s very little overlap and interference.

With the new 6GHz channel, there are 14 new 80MHz and seven new 160MHz channels that don’t overlap; with 5GHz, there are just two 160MHz channels, both of which overlap, so are susceptible to interference from neighbouring networks. This generally means that performance on 5GHz networks are throttled back to avoid clashes. Throttling and interference are an even worse problem on the 2.4GHz band, where there are just three 20MHz channels that don’t overlap, and no 40MHz channels free of overlap.

The result is that Wi-Fi 6E devices connecting on the 6GHz band have throughputs that can surpass Gigabit Ethernet; we’re talking wired speeds without having to have any cables.

6GHz wifi

Wi-Fi 6E’s 5GHz and 2.4GHz channels are compatible with Wi-Fi 6 or older devices, but the 6GHz channel requires dedicated support. That’s provided with Intel’s latest desktop and mobile hardware, and some phones support it, but there are still relatively few devices available.

As well as boosting bandwidth, Wi-Fi 6E requires WPA3 support on the 6GHz channel, which is the latest form of wireless security.

What are Wi-Fi standards?

Each new Wi-Fi standard that comes along introduces improvements and refinements to our wireless networks. Wi-Fi 6 is the sixth generation of these standards, as the name kind of implies.

Here’s a full table of the previous Wi-Fi standards, including their old and new names, maximum speeds and other pertinent information.

Note that the three generations prior to Wi-Fi 4 have not officially been rechristened by the Wi-Fi Alliance, as they’re now defunct and won’t be found or supported by any new products.

Original nameNew nameTop speedYear of introductionOther information
N/AWi-Fi 6E9.6Gbps2022Adds a new 6GHz channel with more 160GHz channels. Less interference means higher speeds, but range isn’t as good as on the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands.
802.11axWi-Fi 69.6Gbps2018Doubles 5GHz channel bandwidth and adds full-duplex MU-MIMO for better sharing.
802.11ac Wave 1 / Wave 2Wi-Fi 51.3Gbps / 2.34Gbps2013 / 2016Used 20, 40 and 80-MHz channels in the 5GHz band / used 160MHz 5GHz channel, added MU-MIMO (Multi-user MIMO) for even greater coverage
802.11nWi-Fi 4450Mbps2009Support for dual-band Wi-Fi, meaning routers and devices could use 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and MIMO (mutli input, multi output) for greater coverage
802.11gn/a54Mbps2003Brought the top 802.11a speed to the 2.4GHz frequency
802.11bn/a11Mbps1999Single-band, used the 2.4GHz frequency
802.11an/a54Mbps1999Single-band, used the 5GHz frequency, launched at same time as 802.11b

On speeds, you should note that the speeds given here are theoretical maximum speeds – even if you have the latest phones and laptops, if there are other devices in your home all using the same connection, or you’re moving closer or further away from your router (and you’ve not got a mesh Wi-Fi system set up), then your mileage may vary.

To take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E and its improvements, you’ll need the proper equipment. For one, you’ll need an 802.11ax compatible router. In addition, each device that connects to that router should have the appropriate Wi-Fi 6 antenna.

Wi-Fi standards also ensure that products are backwards-compatible. In other words, older connected devices which don’t conform to the latest standards will still happily connect to a Wi-Fi 6 router. They just won’t be able to capitalise on those updates. Likewise, any smartphones, laptops and other devices which are Wi-Fi 6 compatible can hook up to a router using Wi-Fi 5.

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