It's hard to read anything nowadays having to do with the Internet that doesn't bring up 5G cellular technology, but even though its less publicized, next-generation WiFi, known as WiFi 6, will have just as big an impact behind the scenes as 5G as it powers a whole new evolution in the Internet of Things.
What Is WiFi 6?
You may not have heard about WiFi 6 largely because you didn't hear about WiFi 5, WiFi 4, or earlier iterations of the wireless networking protocol--or at least you may not have realized it when you did.
Before wireless networking was introduced back in 1999, the Internet was a large collection of cables, landlines, and dial-up modems. Since then, however, WiFi connections--as these new connections came to be called--opened up a whole new world of connectivity by allowing people to untether themselves from desktop connections and helped spur the rapid expansion of laptop and tablet computing.
The WiFi Alliance, the industry organization that issues the "official" WiFi standardized protocols, has helped make all this possible by creating a relatively simple way for the myriad of devices and networking equipment to communicate with each other. Every so often, the WiFi Alliance will issue an update to WiFi standards the same way industry groups involved in cellular networking technology started calling updated standards to mobile networks 3G, 4G LTE, and now 5G.
The problem with the WiFi standards was that unlike the simplicity of the mobile networking nomenclature, the WiFi Alliance began with the first official publication of WiFi standards known asIEEE 802.11a and IEEE 802.11b in 1999. They followed up in 2003 with IEEE 802.11g, then in 2009 with IEEE 802.11n, and IEEE 802.11ac in 2014.
By this point, they realized that this might have been a perfectly fine name for the standards when they first started out, but honestly, these are horrible names and they soon realized this. For the next update, IEEE 802.11ax, they adopted the new name WiFi 6, while going back and renaming IEEE 802.11ac as WiFi 5 and IEEE 802.11n as WiFi 4 since these two standards are the most likely to still see widespread use for the next few years while the earlier standards aren't used much at all anymore.
How Much Faster Is WiFi 6?
So what's such a big deal about these new standards? The difference between WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 is much like the jump from mobile's 4G LTE networks to the new 5G networks rolling out this year and next.
The primary improvements will be in speed, connection strength, a wider spectrum of channels to operate in, and simultaneous streams. This means that there will be more room for each connection at an access point, allowing more devices to connect with less loss of bandwidth than current standards; these connections will be 37% faster than WiFi 5; and the ability of a WiFi 6 network to handle different data streams at the same time.
All of this adds up to a significant jump in speed over WiFi 5, allowing for up to 10 to 12 gigabytes per second of data transfer per connection, which opens up a whole new world of connected devices both at home, at work, and everywhere else in our lives.
How WiFi 6 Will Revolutionize the Internet of Things
While a lot has been made of the coming move to 5G mobile networks, the fact remains that the predominant networking technology for business and residential use is broadband network connections from an ISP. These connections though have been the major stumbling block for the development of the Internet of Things as these home and business wifi connections struggled to keep pace with the addition of dozens of new devices accessing a single router.
As a result, the Internet of Things has been largely a niche concept for early adopters with enough disposable income to invest in these devices and the connection speeds required to run it all.
This may be about to change, however, as WiFi 6 opens up an enormous amount of space for these devices to operate that they didn't have before. Everything from a dozen home appliances being connected to your home network to retail stores using WiFi 6 enabled sensors on shelves to automatically track inventories and place new orders when stock gets too low; you can expect to see WiFi 6 start making all kinds of changes behind the scenes, enabling all kinds of new advances.
What Will You Need to Take Advantage of WiFi 6?
WiFi 6 is the interface between two different pieces of connected hardware, so WiFi 6 can turn into WiFi 7 in a few years time, but if you are still running a router on your home network that was state of the art when WiFi 4 was being introduced, you will miss out on everything WiFi 6 has to offer. In order to take advantage of these new advances, you need WiFi 6 enabled hardware, which means routers, IoT devices, and all the rest.
Fortunately, the WiFi Alliance and tech companies are making it easy to identify whether something is WiFi 6 compatible, using a series of new iconography that can tell you at a glance if that new device or appliance you are looking at is a WiFi 6 enabled device.
Beyond that, expect to see a whole new world of municipal and commercial signage, public infrastructure, and other developments in the next generation of the Internet of Things thanks to the rollout of the new WiFi 6 standards this year.