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Q
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Does Wi-Fi 6 have better range than previous wireless standards?

Yes, Wi-Fi 6 provides better wireless range. But it's not because of higher power output. The key is certain Wi-Fi 6 features can improve data rates at a given range.

Any new wireless standard tends to arrive with great fanfare, a modicum of confusion and some questions about the new standard's capabilities. A frequently asked question about new wireless standards involves range. For example, does the latest wireless standard, 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, have better range than previous Wi-Fi standards?

As we delve into the nuances of Wi-Fi 6 range, be forewarned that simple questions about Wi-Fi rarely have simple answers.

Let's start with a reminder that the Federal Communications Commission sets the allowed output power level for all wireless devices. What's legally permitted in each band or sub-band hasn't changed with 802.11ax. So, range hasn't changed, right? Mostly wrong -- for a number of reasons.

Improving data rates is key

There is some finite distance to any antenna and power output combination at a given frequency. But, for Wi-Fi, it's more about usable data rate over range. Most wireless LAN (WLAN) environments don't try to stretch a signal to its ragged edge. One thing 802.11ax potentially -- and usually -- does is boost the achieved data rate at a given range.

Let's say an 802.11b cell range was 300 feet in diameter. Out at the edge, on the client hardware of the day, maybe you'd only get 1 Mbps data rate. With 802.11g, maybe that cell-edge rate was 6 Mbps. For 802.11n, maybe that edge was somewhere near 30 Mbps.

Each new generation of WLAN technology brings more better with it.

You get the point. Each new generation of WLAN technology brings more better with it: better radio technology, better interference-handling techniques, better processing power, better airtime efficiencies and so on.

Now, back to Wi-Fi 6 range. Like its predecessor standards, we're not looking at any higher output power. But the new standard, 802.11ax, does bring more radio chains, better sensitivity and smaller channels in the form of resource units. These capabilities all contribute to the ability to achieve both increased usability and improved data rates farther out into the footprint provided by the same output power, which, in some cases, can feel like an increase in range.

Clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, modern Wi-Fi topics are rarely simple.

This was last published in February 2020

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