WiFi Standard

This month, a new wireless standard, WiFi 7 (802.11be), will be released. Unless you’re an avid techie or gamer, there’s a good chance you’re still running under WiFi 5 (802.11ac), as that was the dominant standard when everyone was moving to WiFi about ten or so years ago.

Since then, WiFi 6 (802.11ax) and WiFi 6E were released. What have you missed? Well, that depends on the other equipment you use. If you’ve been upgrading your phone but not your WiFi router then you’ve been missing out on a lot of speed. WiFi 5 had a theoretical maximum speed of 3.5Gbps, though in practice is usually less than 1Gbps. WiFi 6 and 6E have maximums of 9.6Gbps. WiFi 7’s maximum is 45Gbps.

Besides speed changes there have been changes in the frequency bands and security. WiFi 6E and 7 use the newly opened up 6GHz band. The 6GHz band is wide and almost unused. It promises a much less noisy environment, allows faster throughput, and less device interference.

One thing to note, like the move from the original 2.4GHz to 5GHz, higher frequency means shorter waves. Shorter waves means greater interference. Greater interference means less effective distance. So, the trade-off here is you can have much faster throughput and support many more devices with the new standards, but at a much shorter distance from the router.

This shortcoming could be overcome by increasing power, but the Canadian government (like almost all governments) limits WiFi broadcast power to 35db. So, all WiFi broadcast is at the same power, but shorter wavelengths have less penetrating power. So, for those of you with large office spaces, large homes, or large properties that want to take advantage of the new WiFi you may need a WiFi booster to reach everywhere. The new standards have better support for multi-access point mesh systems, but that’s perhaps a topic for different column.

Another benefit of the new standards is new security. Most likely you are currently using WPA2 for security. It’s secure, but is vulnerable to dictionary style attacks. These are a more sophisticated version of trying all the guesses. WPA3 arrived with WiFi 6 and is more secure. Support for WPA3 is not universal though and for the next couple of years most people will find they have Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as TVs, doorbell cameras, etc. that are not WPA3 compatible. It is coming, however.

The biggest reason for upgrading is the sheer number of devices we’re all attaching to our WiFi networks. Better algorithms for the newer standards allow many more devices to be active. And newer algorithms and bands mean lower latency. Latency is the time it takes to start transferring data after a request. Lower latency is crucial for gamers and makes the entire network feel faster for everyone.

Finally, WiFi 6 comes with better energy consumption in the form of Target Wake Time (TWT). TWT means that devices don’t have to be in constant communication with the WiFi router, but can spend more time in standby. That means your battery powered devices remain charged longer.

In summary, with WiFi 7 coming, WiFi 6 routers are likely to come down in cost, making them more affordable and bringing some good benefits to offices and homes. WiFi 7 routers aren’t out yet and likely to be very expensive at first and are probably best left to those with a need for speed at any cost.