Putting Wi-Fi 6 to the test: How fast can it speed up your home devices?
Originally Appearing in USA Today, Mike Feibus, December 18, 2019
If you’re like many Americans, your home broadband connection is much faster than your cellular service. And you’re convinced it’s the other way around. The reason for the perceptual mismatch isn’t raw data rates, which are typically several times faster on broadband. Rather, it’s because traffic on the slower service – that is, cellular – is much more intelligently managed. So before you pile on the cable company, you should know that this time, at least, it isn’t really their fault. It’s bad Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi 6, the latest-generation wireless networking tech, is billed as the cure for crowded home networks. Just now coming to market, Wi-Fi 6 is packed with sophisticated management features designed to keep all the devices on your home network humming. So in theory, at least, the more computers, smartphones, tablets, thermostats and voice assistants you have on your network, the more Wi-Fi 6 should be able to help.
To put that to the test, I’m evaluating Netgear’s new Orbi Wi-Fi 6, which appears to be one of the first whole-home mesh network available with the latest-generation wireless tech.
Is broadband really faster?
Yes, it’s true: U.S. broadband speeds are more than 3.5 times faster on average than mobile internet, according to Ookla’s Speedtest measurements. Yet a recent Deloitte survey found that 34% of Americans believe their cellular data service is faster than their home connection, while only 21% said that home was faster.
Credit LTE for that. The fourth-generation cellular technology is packed with management features to ensure all our smartphones, tablets and smartwatches are getting the data they need when they need it. Next-generation 5G cellular promises even better management for seemingly instant responsiveness – and much faster connection speeds, to boot.
It’s a much different story at home with your broadband internet connection. Internet speeds are already fast – and getting faster. At the same time, though, the number of devices is growing. Voice assistants, security cameras, connected thermostats and smart deadbolts all are clamoring for attention from a Wi-Fi network that was built to feed loads of bandwidth to just a few PCs.
Wi-Fi 6 Command and Control
Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac, was the first generation of Wi-Fi developed with an eye toward managing traffic. And Wi-Fi 6 takes that much further. Wi-Fi 6 greatly enhances a Wi-Fi 5 feature called MU-MIMO, for example, which boosts speed and reliability. Wi-Fi 6 also incorporates a 4G/5G cellular technique called OFDMA, which lets the router slice up capacity according to demand.
That way, a light bulb listening for an on/off command would get a fraction of the spectrum than, say, esports streaming on a game console. Altogether, the new and expanded features enable Wi-Fi 6 routers to manage 100 devices at once.
But there’s a catch
The benefit you’ll see by upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 isn’t just about how many connected devices you have on your home network. It also has to do with how hip those devices are to the Wi-Fi 6 community concept.
Older devices, for example, won’t know they can share Wi-Fi spectrum using OFDMA. So they’ll just take an entire channel, whether they need it or not. And they won’t know they can get their performance-minded tasks done in no time with MU-MIMO. So they’ll stay on the network longer, adding to congestion.
The silver lining here is that a Wi-Fi 6 router installed today will keep getting better as you upgrade your electronics. The latest smartphones and laptops are already moving quickly to Wi-Fi 6. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for locks, cameras, thermostats and other smart devices. Many of those ship with Wi-Fi 4, or 802.11n.
If you have a Wi-Fi 4-capable router and at least 10 devices connected to it, expect to notice a dramatic improvement in network performance with a router like the Orbi Wi-Fi 6. But even if you bought a Wi-Fi 5 router a year or two ago, and then went all-in on the connected home, you should see still some benefit today. Wi-Fi 6 does have some management features that benefit any network, like the ability to limit the drag on network performance from older devices.
Which is what I’ve seen so far with Orbi Wi-Fi 6. Setup was easy, even with more than 30 connected devices in the house. Network responsiveness at the far corners of the house is improved even over a year-old Orbi system.
Thus far, though, the biggest benefits I’ve seen are improvements in lag times with the apps that control the smart stuff. I find those seemingly interminable delays to be among the most annoying aspects of the connected home phenomenon. I hate – hate! – sitting in the driveway waiting for those apps to get to the point they’ll let me turn on the cameras and lock the doors. The lags are better now with Orbi Wi-Fi 6. But they’re still there.
That could change over the long haul, as more devices are equipped with the latest wireless tech. One day, in fact, Wi-Fi 6 could be just the thing to boost home network performance to the point we all understand that our faster internet connection is actually faster than the slower one. But if that happens, don’t worry. By that time, I’m sure we’ll have something else we can blame on the cable company.