Wifi 5 vs. Wifi 6: 10 Key Differences – Spiceworks News and Insights

Wifi 6 differs from Wifi 5 in crucial areas such as power consumption, network security, data transfer speeds, and latency.

Launched in 2014, Wi-Fi 5 was the leading technology for wireless local area networks for several years. However, since 2019-2020, Wi-Fi 6 has become prevalent, with large-scale shipments worldwide. This article explains the differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, the pros and cons of each, and the rise of Wi-Fi 6E, the latest offering. 
Wi-fi is a prevalent technology used worldwide. Virtually every smartphone has some form of wireless connectivity. Wi-Fi was coined as a tradename by a group of tech companies, the Wi-Fi Alliance. It is a technology that uses waves to enable computers, smartphones, smartwatches, and other electronic devices to access the Internet and communicate with each other via a wireless personal area network. 
In its most primitive form as ALOHAnet, Wi-Fi originated in Hawaii in 1971. WaveLAN was then developed in 1991 and became the precursor to today’s IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standards. Since its advent, wireless technology, specifically Wi-Fi, has kept evolving with the release of more sophisticated standards over the years. A few years back, Wi-Fi 5 was the highest Wi-Fi standard available. However, Wi-Fi 6 has been released and has begun to penetrate the global market.

Wi-Fi 5 or IEEE 802.11ac is the fifth generation of wireless networking standards in the IEEE 802.11 set of standards which provides high throughput in a wireless local area network (LAN) using the 5GHz band frequency. Wi-Fi 5 was released in 2014 and brought several upgrades from the previously used Wi-Fi 4. Wi-Fi 5, while a wonderful innovation, has pros and cons. 
The pros include:
The cons are:
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Wi-Fi 6 is the official market name for the wireless computer network operating in the 802.11ax standard. It is also known as AX Wi-Fi or high-efficiency Wi-Fi. It is the successor of 802.11ac (Wifi 5). Wifi 6 is quite an improvement to the Wi-Fi technology in general. Its principal design is to improve wireless connectivity in highly dense environments such as malls, dense residential areas, corporate offices, buildings, etc. Released in 2019, IEEE 802.11ax uses the standard 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, with the 6GHz band to be introduced in Wi-Fi 6e. 
The pros of Wifi 6 include:
It also has the following cons:
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Keeping up with the constantly changing wireless standards can be challenging. Each release has more modifications, better specifications, and increased usability. However, there is still some overlap with consecutive Wifi standards. This then requires every individual that uses Wi-Fi and internet technology to know the critical differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6. These differences include: 
When Wi-Fi was first released, names based on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 standard were given to each unique medium. For easier marketing, the Wi-Fi Alliance made the different standards adopt more specific names based on their position in the generations of Wi-Fi standards. Wi-Fi 5 used the designated name IEEE 802.11ac. The newer Wi-Fi 6 standard is named 802.11ax. These two should not be confused with each other. 
The battery life of electronic devices is one of the most critical specifications individuals look out for when considering a new device. Even if the power supply is consistent enough, it is always neither convenient nor aesthetically pleasing to lug a charger around. Some devices, especially in the case of IoT device management, are not created for repeated charging. This means that a Wi-Fi standard that can reduce the amount of power drained by the connection will be a better option, as Wi-Fi tends to strain battery reserves.
Wi-Fi 6 offers this unique battery conservation benefit due to a new feature not found in previous generations called the Target Wake Time (TWT). TWT is a technology that allows the amount of unproductive time a peripheral device spends connected to the wireless network to be cut down. 
Target Wake Time allows the access point to communicate with a device, instructing it to put the wireless radio to sleep when not in transmission. Devices can determine when their Wi-Fi will be active to send and receive data, thus increasing their sleep time. While this feature may not be convenient for active smartphone users, it is perfect for Internet of Things (IoT) setups that do not require a constant active internet connection with longer-lasting batteries.
Wi-Fi 5 does not have the TWT feature and cannot regulate the extent of power consumption by peripheral devices. Therefore power consumption is higher when using Wi-Fi 5 than Wi-Fi 6.
The importance of network security in wireless networks can never be over-emphasized. Wi-Fi as a wireless network allows multiple devices and users to be connected by one access point to the internet. Wi-Fi is also commonly used in public places where there is less control over who can connect to a network. In corporate buildings, necessary information will need to be protected from malicious hackers trying to destroy or steal data. 
Wi-Fi 5 supports the WPA and WPA2 protocols for a secure connection. Compared to the now obsolete WEP protocol, these are significant security improvements, but now it has several vulnerabilities and weak spots. One such vulnerability is dictionary attacks that cybercriminals can use to predict your encrypted password using multiple attempts and combinations. 
Wi-Fi 6 has stepped up the game by incorporating the latest security protocol, WPA3. Thus Wi-Fi 6-enabled devices used WPA, WPA2, and WPA3 protocols together. Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 improves multi-factor authentication and encryption processes. It has the OWE technology that prevents auto encryption and, lastly, scannable OR codes to connect to devices directly. 
Speed is one significant and exciting feature new technology must work on before release. Speed is vital for everything that happens on the internet and every type of network topology. Faster rates mean shorter download times, better streaming, faster data transfer, better video and voice conferencing, faster browsing, etc.
Wi-Fi 5 has a theoretical maximum data transfer speed of 6.9 Gbps. In real-life experience, the 802.11ac standard has an average data speed of about 200Mbps. The rate at which a Wi-Fi standard operates is dependent on the QAM (Quadrature amplitude modulation) and the number of devices connected to one access point or router. Wi-Fi 5 uses 256-QAM modulation, which is much lower than Wi-Fi 6. In addition, Wi-Fi 5 MU-MIMO technology comfortably allows just four devices to connect simultaneously. More devices mean congestion and bandwidth sharing leading to lesser speed for each device. 
Wi-Fi 6, in contrast, is a much better option in terms of speed, especially when it comes to congested networks. It uses 1024-QAM modulation and boasts a theoretical maximum of up to 9.6Gbps. The difference between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 speeds per device is not so vast. Wi-Fi 6 is invariably faster, but the real speed advantage comes when multiple devices are connected to the Wi-Fi network. The exact number of connected devices that will cause a significant drop in speed and internet strength for Wi-Fi 5 devices and routers will hardly be noticeable using Wi-Fi 6.
Beamforming is a signal transmission technique that directs wireless signals towards a specific receiver rather than spreading the signal from different directions. Using beamforming, an access point can send data directly to a device rather than broadcasting the signal in all directions. Beamforming is not a new technology and has been present in both Wi-Fi 4 and 5. In the Wi-Fi 5 standard, just four antennas were used. However, Wi-Fi 6 makes use of eight antennas. The better the ability of the Wi-Fi router to use the beamforming technology, the better the data rate and range of the signal. 
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Wi-Fi 5 uses a technology known as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM) for network access control. It is a technology that controls the number of users accessing a specific subcarrier at a particular time. In the 802.11ac standard, the frequency channels 20, 40, 80, and 160 MHz have 64, 128, 256, and 512 subcarriers, respectively. This dramatically limits the number of users that can connect to and use the network at a given time. 
On the other hand, Wi-Fi 6 uses OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access). OFDMA technology multiplexes the already existing subcarrier spaces on the same frequency bands. By doing this, users do not have to wait in line for a free subcarrier but can easily find one.
OFDMA assigns different resource units to multiple users. OFDMA requires four times the number of subcarriers per channel frequency found in the previous technology. This means that in the 20, 40, 80, and 160 MHz channels, there are 256, 512, 1,024, and 2,048 subcarriers, respectively, in the 802.11ax standard. This results in lesser congestion and delays even when multiple devices are connected. OFDMA increases efficiency, reduces latency, and is ideal for low bandwidth operations.
MU MIMO means “multi-user, multiple-input, multiple outputs.” It is a wireless technology that allows more than one user to communicate with a router at the same time. There is a massive difference in MU MIMO capacity from Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6. 
Wi-Fi 5 uses a downlink, unidirectional 4×4 MU-MIMO. It means multiple users to a specific limit can access the router and a stable Wifi connection. Once this limit of four simultaneous transmissions is exceeded, the Wi-Fi becomes crowded and starts showing congested signs such as increased latency, packet loss, etc.
In Wi-Fi 6, 8×8 MU MIMO technology is used. This can handle up to eight devices connected and actively using the wireless LAN without any interference. Better still, the Wi-Fi 6 MU MIMO upgrade is bidirectional, meaning the peripheral device can connect to the router on multiple bands. This means improved ability to upload information to the internet, among other uses. 
One clear difference between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 is the frequency bands of both technologies. Wi-Fi 5 uses only the 5GHz band, which offers less interference. The downside is that the signals have a shorter range and decreased ability to penetrate walls and other obstacles.
Wi-Fi 6, on the other hand, uses two band frequencies, the standard 2.4Ghz and the 5Ghz. In the Wi-Fi 6e, developers will add a 6 GHz band to the family. The fact that Wi-Fi 6 uses both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz means that devices can automatically scan for and utilize the band with less interference and better suitability. That way, the user gets the best of both networks, faster speed when a close range is optimal and a more comprehensive range when peripherals are not within the same location. 
Basic Service Sets (BSS) coloring is another feature of Wi-Fi 6, differentiating it from its predecessors. It is an entirely new feature of the Wi-Fi 6 standard. BSS itself is a feature of every 802.11 network. However, only Wi-Fi 6 and future generations can decipher the BSS coloring from other devices using a BSS color identifier. This feature is crucial because it helps to prevent overlapping signals. 
Latency refers to the delay in transferring data packets from one location to another. Low latency speeds tending to zero are more optimal and indicate little or no delay. Wi-Fi 6, compared to Wi-Fi 5, offers lesser latency, making it perfect for businesses and corporate organizations. Home users will also appreciate this feature of the latest models because it means faster internet connections. 
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In 2021, barely a year after the release of the Wi-Fi 6 standard, Wi-Fi 6e was launched. Wi-Fi 6e simply means the existing technology is extended to include the 6GHz band. While not very much different from Wi-Fi 6, 6e opens a whole new world of possibilities, as both networks utilize the same IEEE 802.11ax standard. This makes Wi-Fi 6e an augmentation to Wi-Fi 6 rather than another generation of technology. 
Nonetheless, there are some apparent differences between Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6e. The most critical and defining difference between these two technologies is the opening up of an entirely new band frequency. Wi-Fi 6e operates on three bands, the overused and highly congested 2.4Ghz, the crowded 5Ghz, and 6 GHz, unique to Wi-Fi 6 devices. The 6 GHz band exists without interference or overlap. This means less latency and, of course, faster speed! As the world is rapidly tilting towards newer technologies like VR and 8k streaming, 6Ghz is the perfect step up to the future. 
Lastly, Wi-Fi 6e has more channels, including seven 160 MHz channels on the 6 GHz band. This is a far cry from Wi-Fi 6, which had only one 160 Mhz channel on the 5 GHz band. One minor drawback is that while the Wi-Fi 6 bands are backward compatible, the Wi-Fi 6e advantage of the 6 GHz band is only available for Wi-Fi 6 network hardware devices. 
Wi-Fi 6 is rapidly becoming the staple in wireless networking and will be central to IT infrastructure over the next few years. It is vital to understand the differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 to be able to transition to a more robust networking landscape and decide which networking standard is applicable for which use case. As connectivity remains central to modern enterprises and enterprise IoT becomes the norm, knowledge of these differences and functionalities will become more critical than ever.
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