Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is promising to make Wi-Fi better, with faster speeds, better connections, and more. Sounds great, right? No wonder we’re starting to see shiny new Wi-Fi 6 routers on shelves in time for back-to-school, Labor Day, and holiday shopping. And we should expect to see the new routers promoted heavily in the coming months. But should you buy one?
The average Wi-Fi 6 router costs $100-$150 more than a comparable Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) router. You may be willing to pay that premium in the hopes of overcoming common Wi-Fi frustrations such as a weak connection due to location (you’re far from the router); a slow connection due to website or device traffic; and total dead zones (now, you’re really too far from the router). But while Wi-Fi 6 may help address some of these challenges in public venues like airports, sports arenas, and public transport stations, it’s not going to bring immediate, meaningful benefits to in-home users. Here’s why:
Not all devices will work with Wi-Fi 6
Any gadget or device that’s trying to connect to a Wi-Fi 6 router won’t gain any of the Wi-Fi 6 benefits unless it has an 11ax chip. This means your streaming devices, phones, tablets, wireless headphones, laptops, printers, voice assistants, and other smart home technologies, from smart lights to smart thermostats, would have to have an 11ax/Wi-Fi 6 chip. Right now, there’s just a handful of 11ax devices on the market with the bulk of 11ax product shipments predicted a few years out.
Wi-Fi 6 is blazing fast, but only if you have 50+ devices connected
Wi-Fi 6 promises to have speeds up to 10,000 Mbps. This may sound really fast, but let’s dissect that a bit. 10,000 Mbps isn’t the speed you’d get to your phone or laptop. It’s the total amount of data that could flow through the router across all devices connected to that router. To play one 4K high definition video, you only need 20 Mbps. So even if you have four TVs simultaneously streaming 4K sports in your home, you’d need only 80Mbps, a far cry from 10,000. Wi-Fi 6 does promise to deliver up to 25% higher speeds than Wi-Fi 5, which could mean up to 1Gbps on a single mobile phone. For in-home users to see this, they’d need to be pretty close to their router, approximately within 15 feet, with no walls or furniture in between.
Speed, however, is not just impacted by distance; it also could be impacted by the number of devices connected to the home network. You may think the fewer devices the better because that leads to less Wi-Fi traffic. This is true generally. Wi-Fi 6 starts to help over Wi-Fi 5 when an in-home user has more than 50 devices connected. That’s more than double the number of devices the average Google Wifi user has (18) and 10 times more than the average household (5). Speed is definitely king when it comes to Wi-Fi, but with Wi-Fi 5 today, you’ve got more than enough headroom for the future without investing the extra $100-$150 in Wi-Fi 6.
Widespread adoption will take 3 years or more
Wi-Fi 6 is a new technology and costs a premium to companies making devices like phones or other devices in your home. The added cost and few clear benefits to in-home users will likely make the industry slow to adopt Wi-Fi 6 chips. It’s no surprise that IDC research indicates mainstream adoption of Wi-Fi 6 will take place only by 2023.
As someone who works in the Wi-Fi industry, I’m excited about Wi-Fi 6 and its capabilities. Yes, Wi-Fi 6 has the potential to improve speeds and more. But it’s still early in the adoption phase and too early for consumers to see immediate improvements. In-home Wi-Fi users and small businesses would be better holding off until Wi-Fi 6 costs come down and more devices adopt the necessary, compatible 11ax chips. At that point, we will start to see some of Wi-Fi 6’s benefits deliver meaningful user benefits at the right price points for accessible adoption. In the meantime, you can get the most out of Wi-Fi 5 by being smart about where you place your router, using a mesh system, and following healthy Wi-Fi hygiene, like using a router that auto-updates to the latest software.
Sanjay Noronha is the Lead Connectivity Product Manager for Google Wifi at Google Nest. He has decades of experience in product management and marketing high performance products that combine hardware, software and UX to make users more productive.