Wi-Fi is everywhere. If you’re in any densely populated or crowded space, looking at the available Wi-Fi networks will show a long list of networks that are just, well, hanging out. Wi-Fi isn’t the most reliable way to connect devices to a network, but it is pretty important for how we use our mobile and tablet devices at least. The trickier aspects of Wi-Fi have to do with its functions as a type of radio transmission, and with its security issues. This week, we’ll revisit “the Wi-Fi issue” by exploring its history, and show you why it’s probably time for an upgrade to your routers, access points, and wireless network cards to the newest standards: Wi-Fi 6 and 6E.

A Short History of Wi-Fi (and its problems)

Wi-Fi, in general, has its share of security and reliability problems. This comes from the fact that the original specifications for Wi-Fi—802.11 & 802.11b—weren’t necessarily intended to be used as an internet gateway for every computer in your neighborhood. Starting around 1999, Wi-Fi became a standard way of connecting to a network for most people, but wired ethernet connections (which still make the most sense for stationary connections and devices, because of their increased speed and reliability), still dominated.

Through the 2000s, though, Wi-Fi became the de facto standard for home networking. It’s convenient to connect your phone and tablet to, and easy to get connected without drilling holes in your walls. The sacrifice is still there on reliability, particularly if you’re in a densely populated area, or simply have too many things using the radio spectrum in that range. In 2003, the IEEE adopted the Wi-Fi standard called 802.11g, which was ubiquitously known as Wi-Fi for the next five years. It would often go out when using your microwave oven or a cordless phone, but it offered a (then) respectable 54 Mbit/s speed in ideal conditions.

That speed was an important mark to hit as people were more commonly connecting to the internet with DSL and cable lines that could achieve a few megabits per second when downloading. Around the same time, Wi-Fi protocols adopted stronger security requirements, known as WPA2. Previous forms of Wi-Fi authentication were fairly weak and eventually became simple to crack.

To solve some of the reliability issues, 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) was introduced in 2008, which operates on both the 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrum. That allowed for much faster speeds, but less distance from the access point (since higher frequencies are more easily absorbed by walls and other objects). Similarly, 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) uses the 5 GHz spectrum to achieve even faster speeds.

After becoming the security standard, WPA2 received a great amount of scrutiny from researchers and bad guys, which exposed its own flaws. With enough time, a nefarious neighbor or passerby could just sniff out the key to your network, authenticate their own devices, and see what is on your network or use your internet connection.

The Modern 802.11 Family: Wi-Fi 6

Because WPA2 is an aging security protocol, and because the router and client devices keep getting better, the 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6 and 6E) is the new standard for Wi-Fi hardware. It introduced a new security protocol, WPA3, which improves on the encryption offered in WPA2. The way that WPA3’s encryption works, even if a hacker sniffed out the key for your connection, the network’s actual key is not compromised; when the session for your connected device closes, the stolen key is then useless.

If you’ve bought a new router or laptop in the past year, it’s most likely able to use the Wi-Fi 6 protocol, but is backwards compatible with the older hardware that you may have around. That means that even if your new laptop or phone can use the standard, you need a router that uses it to get its advantages. Having new hardware means that you get up-to-date software on a new router too, so you won’t be running the risk of having outdated firmware or software on your network infrastructure.

With Wi-Fi 6, clients with dual antennas can reach 2Gbps. Most fiber internet connections start at 100 Mbps and go up to 1 Gbps, meaning that your home or office wireless network could run faster than your connection to the internet. All of that speed means that your backups or file transfers on the intranet will be as fast on Wi-Fi as they are on lower-end ethernet connections. Wi-Fi 6E uses an even faster 6 GHz band, meaning that it will have less congestion (in a newly opened part of the radio spectrum), but at the cost of shorter ranges. Of course, with a capable mesh network, this might not be an issue.

-Written by Derek Jeppsen on Behalf of Sean Goss and Crown Computers Team