You’ve Heard of 5G. Now Meet Wi-Fi 6.

Tara Lachapelle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Got Wi-Fi problems? Future routers will at least be ready for the next pandemic. 

With much of the U.S. on home lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, we’re all more aware than ever just how important Wi-Fi is — and it’s something many of us probably took for granted until now. Before the pandemic, most everyone was focused on 5G, the next big thing in mobile-internet technology, and the possibilities it would create for our smartphone-brandishing on-the-go lifestyles. The country has been in a hurry to build out new 5G wireless networks that are fast enough to do things such as download movies in the blink of an eye, and someday even power driverless cars. Except “on the go” and “drive” don’t mean much when we’re literally not going anywhere these days.

The good news is that Wi-Fi has been quietly getting a much-needed upgrade, too. Unfortunately, it hasn’t arrived in time for this moment, when we all need it most. But it’s just around the corner, and later this month, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on freeing up lots of spectrum in an important step for the next generation of indoor wireless technology, known as Wi-Fi 6.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, I don’t remember Wi-Fi 4 or 5,” that’s because the consumer-friendly naming convention is relatively new. Eighteen months ago, the Wi-Fi Alliance began designating 802.11ac technology, for example — and the devices that support it — as Wi-Fi 5. That’s the current standard, and it’s about seven years old. (The standard for Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax, if you must know.)

But forget the tech jargon. All you really need to know is that Wi-Fi 6 will be faster and much more efficient, capable of powering a growing number of devices simultaneously — iPads, laptops, smart TVs, video-game consoles, connected kitchen appliances, virtual-reality platforms and so on. Wi-Fi 5 can handle some but not all those at once, leading to network congestion and slowdowns as the devices in our homes battle for bandwidth. Some households may be getting a taste of this because of the pandemic if, say, one parent is trying to conduct a Zoom video conference call from a laptop, while another streams Netflix and the kids use their tablets to attend virtual school lessons or play online games.

The ability to handle so many devices will also be useful in places such as packed concert venues. In that way, Wi-Fi 6 is like the indoor version of 5G. And it has other neat features, such as extending the battery life of our devices by getting to know when they’re normally used and waiting to check to send or receive data until then. 

Wi-Fi 6 exists; there just aren’t many routers or devices available yet that support it. The FCC vote on April 23 will make its arrival more official, with 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6-gigahertz band being made available. There are already licensed users of those airwaves, such as news broadcasters and cities for their public-safety dispatches. In a complex feat of engineering, those incumbents will be able to continue using it as well. 

Wireless and home internet providers say U.S. networks are generally holding up despite the surge in demand in recent weeks, though some third-party sources have shown large speed declines in certain cities. We need better data, and the FCC should be doing more to keep citizens informed. But at least some of the frustration that’s come with trying to connect to the internet while we’re all cooped up at home will eventually be resolved by Wi-Fi 6. Hopefully there just won’t be another reason like this to test it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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