While Wi-Fi has become a fundamental aspect of our lives, the way that it works can be pretty complicated, especially when talking about different versions or trying to understand the variations of “802.11.” So, let’s demystify Wi-Fi standards and what the letters after 802.11 mean.
A Brief History of Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi standards function in the same way that roads do, in that they have certain rules and requirements for any two points to connect. Think, for example, of how cars drive on the left side of the road in the UK but on the right side of the road in the US. If you tried to combine the two, there would be accidents, crashes, and everything would generally break down.
As such, the Wi-Fi standards are there to establish a common system of communication so that different sets of devices can communicate. Without them, we’d constantly have issues with incompatible devices not working well together.
So, to solve any issues, the IEEE standard was established, with the numbers 802.11 signifying the “base” Wi-Fi protocol. In fact, 802.11 was the first-ever Wi-Fi, known now as Wi-Fi Legacy, and was created in 1997 with a speed of 2 Mbps, which was quite fast for the time.
Of course, that didn’t last long, with 1999 seeing the establishment of 802.11a (Wi-Fi 2), able to hit 52Mbps, and more importantly, use the 5GHz band since 2.4GHz had a lot of congestion, the least of which being from mobile phones. Ironically though, it was 802.11b (Wi-Fi 1), made in the same year, that actually kick-started Wi-Fi’s popularity. 802.11b could only achieve around 11Mbps, it and only used the 2.4Ghz band.
It wasn’t until IEEE 802.11g (now known as Wi-Fi 3) was created in 2003 that speeds of 54Mbps came to the 2.4Ghz band and cemented the popularity of the Wi-Fi standard across the globe. There may still be some devices out there that use this standard, but they won’t be very common.
Wi-Fi 4, 5, & 6
Wi-Fi 4 is where the modern standards started, and you’ll still probably find a few devices here and there that use it. More commonly known as 802.11n, Wi-Fi 4 works on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands and adds multi-channel support, bringing up the theoretical maximum speed to 600Mbps—quite a jump from the previous protocol.
Then there’s Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, which is the most common standard that pretty much everybody is using nowadays. Wi-Fi 5 was actually a pretty important update since it added support for MU-MIMO, a technology that allows for multiple devices to connect concurrently, rather than one at a time. The standard also bumped up the theoretical maximum speeds to 1,300 Mbps, which most people can’t really take advantage of anyway, and mostly works towards providing a little bit of extra speed at longer ranges.
Finally, we have Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. This is “the big one” for modern upgrades. Speeds were bumped up to a theoretical maximum of 10Gbps, MU-MIMO tech was upgraded to include even more devices, and there are even extra sub-channels added specifically for additional data streams.
There’s also Wi-Fi 6E, a variation of Wi-Fi 6 that can also work on the 6GHz band.
Should You Upgrade?
Whether you upgrade or not ultimately depends on what current system you’re working with and what budget you have.
Routers that have Wi-Fi 6 support are often still a little on the expensive side. If it’s time to buy a new router, it makes sense to get one—but should you get a new router just for Wi-Fi 6? It depends on what other devices you have (how many of them support Wi-Fi 6?) and how happy you are with your current WI-Fi performance. That being said, if you have a lot of devices that connect to your router, then the increased broadcast channels from Wi-Fi 6 can be useful—assuming your devices can also use Wi-Fi 6.
Then, we have Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), and if you’re on that, you absolutely should upgrade. In that situation, it’s probably better to jump to Wi-Fi 6 if it fits in your budget, but don’t feel bad if you can only afford to go to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), it’s still widely used and will be for a few years more at least.
Ultimately, it boils down to the following: Wi-Fi 6 is great but expensive and not absolutely necessary just yet. Wi-Fi 4 is outdated, and you definitely should upgrade. Wi-Fi 5 is the goldilocks at the moment and will be in a few years. Unless you specifically need something from Wi-Fi 6, sticking with your current Wi-FI 5 router is a fine move.
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