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A deep dive into the differences between Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5

While Wi-Fi 5 is still sufficient for organizations, Wi-Fi 6 is worth learning about. Here are the major differences between the standards and what they mean for your organization.

From its inception, Wi-Fi 6 -- or 802.11ax -- has been unique compared to its predecessors. Accompanied by multiple new features, capabilities and a new naming system, Wi-Fi 6 aimed to make a splash in the networking industry from its beginning.

Wi-Fi 6 entered the limelight in late 2018, and the Wi-Fi Alliance announced it alongside a new naming system for each Wi-Fi generation. Former Wi-Fi generations are more commonly known by their technical standards names from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: 802.11b (Wi-Fi 1), 802.11a (Wi-Fi 2), 802.11g (Wi-Fi 3), 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) and 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5). The generations preceding Wi-Fi 4 won't officially adopt the Wi-Fi Alliance's new naming system, but that's only one major difference between Wi-Fi 6 and its predecessors.

Differences between Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5, in particular, showcase how Wi-Fi 6 aims to differentiate itself from previous generations, as Wi-Fi 6 offers broader IoT capabilities and unique features, such as orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA).

The Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5 debate may not affect enterprises or larger organizations until the mid-2020s, but organizations should know what each generation offers and how these capabilities could affect their operations.

Defining Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 5. More widely known as 802.11ac, Wi-Fi 5 is the fifth generation of Wi-Fi and directly precedes Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 5 is an update to the 802.11a standard and reigned supreme throughout the 2010s. Before 802.11ac was dubbed Wi-Fi 5, the standard was also called Gigabit Wi-Fi, as it was the first Wi-Fi standard to exceed 1 Gbps as a maximum data rate.

Wi-Fi 5 adopted several capabilities from the second generation of Wi-Fi, including orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and the ability to operate on a 5 GHz band. Wi-Fi 5 transformed these capabilities into features that could benefit and support networks and network technology at the time, including enhanced video streaming capabilities and file backups.

Wi-Fi 6. Also known as 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 6 is the sixth and latest generation of Wi-Fi and aims to improve areas such as network efficiency, maximum data rates and wired network infrastructure. Wi-Fi 6 promises an extensive shift in the networking industry, with innovative new features that could make Wi-Fi 6 fundamentally distinct from previous generations.

The Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5 debate encompasses the similarities and features of both standards, including multiuser multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) and goals for maximum data rates and frequencies. However, Wi-Fi 6 stands a better chance of meeting shared speed and frequency goals, due to its increased ability to support more clients and devices simultaneously with features such as OFDMA.

The key differences between Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5 include the following:

  • access point (AP) capacity
  • AP spatial streams
  • frequency bands
  • maximum data rates
  • MU-MIMO
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5
While Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 offer similar capabilities and features, Wi-Fi 6 heightens these abilities for enhanced traffic speeds and alleviated traffic congestion.

Comparing the differences between Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5

AP capacity. The Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5 debate over AP capacity starts with Wi-Fi 6's most innovative feature: OFDMA. OFDMA is a form of Wi-Fi 5's OFDM, which encodes data on multiple carrier frequencies to reduce channel interferences. OFDMA enhances these capabilities and enables Wi-Fi 6 APs to connect to multiple clients at once, whereas Wi-Fi 5 APs connect to a single client per channel.

OFDMA's multiuser support -- compared to OFDM's single-user support -- can make Wi-Fi 6 APs more efficient and enable quick, simultaneous request response times.

AP spatial streams. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 APs also differ due to spatial streams, which are multiple multiplexed signals that antennas transmit in a single channel within MIMO environments. Wi-Fi 5 APs can consistently offer four spatial streams, with the potential to reach up to eight spatial streams, although the APs can only reach eight in ideal circumstances.

Vendors have already announced Wi-Fi 6 APs with eight spatial streams, so this goal is inherently more achievable in the latest generation of Wi-Fi. With more spatial streams, Wi-Fi 6 gains greater maximum potential performance speeds, which means it can consistently perform faster right out of the gate, compared to Wi-Fi 5.

Frequency band. Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5 frequency bands differ, which affects the available throughput each Wi-Fi generation can offer. Wi-Fi 5 uses the 5 GHz frequency band for data transmission, while Wi-Fi 6 can use both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and, in turn, support better throughput than Wi-Fi 5.

Maximum data rate. AP capacity, spatial stream and frequency all affect the potential maximum data rates for both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5. While Wi-Fi 5's goal data rate was around 6.9 Gbps, organizations could only reach this under ideal circumstances. The rate goal for Wi-Fi 6 is 9.6 Gbps, and with the standard's promised advancements and new features, it is more likely to reach or come close to its goal.

MU-MIMO. Traditional MIMO enables data sources and destinations to communicate through multiple antennas with smart antenna technology, which enables quicker and more seamless communication. MU-MIMO also does this, yet it can support multiple users within a single network environment at the same time.

Wi-Fi 5 uses downlink MU-MIMO, while Wi-Fi 6 supports bidirectional MU-MIMO for both uplink and downlink capabilities. Wi-Fi 6 can enable multiple users to upload and download data simultaneously, and Wi-Fi 5 can't. Wi-Fi 6's MU-MIMO capabilities also add to its promises for enhanced speed.

Other features that make Wi-Fi 6 worthwhile

While the five aforementioned features are key differences between Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5, other advancements further differentiate the two generations. Quadrature amplitude modulation signals are one significant difference, for example, as network engineer Lee Badman said Wi-Fi 6 will have QAM capabilities four times higher than Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6's 1024-QAM will enable greater bandwidth than Wi-Fi 5's 256-QAM.

Wi-Fi 6 also supports Target Wake Time (TWT), a feature that enables a client or user to control how often an AP communicates with it in order to save battery power and alleviate traffic congestion. This feature can greatly benefit IoT adoption, as organizations could add more IoT devices to their networks and not worry about a potential negative effect on network performance from those devices.

Wi-Fi 6 also uses basic service set (BSS) coloring. This feature essentially color-codes traffic on a frequency to identify whether it can be used. The goal of BSS coloring is to diminish and prevent cochannel interferences, which can improve network efficiency, Badman said.

BSS coloring and TWT are two features Wi-Fi 6 has that Wi-Fi 5 doesn't. While Wi-Fi 5 suffices for businesses, new Wi-Fi 6 features may eventually become essential for organizations that wish to embrace innovative new technologies and kick-start network transformation.

This was last published in January 2020

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