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As Wi-Fi 5 gives way to Wi-Fi 6 as the reigning wireless LAN standard, enterprises will likely have questions about how the two standards differ. As the newest standard, Wi-Fi 6 promises faster speeds and optimal performance when the wireless environment has been designed properly.
The differences between the two standards have been picked apart extensively. But, more specifically, how does Wi-Fi range factor into the conversation? And does Wi-Fi 6 have better range than previous wireless standards?
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6 range
Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, and Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, operate in the same frequency bands in 5 GHz. A Wi-Fi cell's range is determined by frequency characteristics, output power, antenna pattern and the environment in which the cell is operating.
Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are bound by the same power and frequency rules as defined by the Federal Communications Commission. Therefore, the two standards generally won't have significant differences in achievable range. But, of course, there's more to the story.
Improving data rates is key
There is some finite distance to any antenna and power output combination at a given frequency. But, for Wi-Fi, it's more about usable data rate over range. Most wireless LAN (WLAN) environments don't try to stretch signal strength to its ragged edge. One thing Wi-Fi 6 potentially -- and usually -- does is boost the achieved data rate at a given range.
Let's say an 802.11b cell range was 300 feet in diameter. Out at the edge, on the client hardware of the day, maybe you'd only get 1 Mbps data rate. With 802.11g, maybe that cell-edge rate was 6 Mbps. For 802.11n, maybe that edge was somewhere near 30 Mbps.
You get the point. Each new generation of WLAN technology brings more better with it: better radio technology, better interference-handling techniques, better processing power, better airtime efficiencies and so on.
Now, back to Wi-Fi 6 range. Like its predecessor standards, we're not looking at any higher output power. But the new standard does bring more radio chains, better sensitivity and smaller channels in the form of resource units. These capabilities all contribute to the ability to achieve both increased usability and improved data rates farther out into the footprint provided by the same output power, which, in some cases, can feel like an increase in range.
Clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, modern Wi-Fi topics are rarely simple.
Wi-Fi range boosting options
In carpeted spaces, the design goal is usually not range, but client density. This means more access points (APs) at lower power. But, certainly in some cases, squeezing more range from a wireless AP is important.
Everything in Wi-Fi is a tradeoff. If you want longer range, you may have to use a lower frequency and an older standard, such as 2.4 GHz and 802.11n, or a high-gain external antenna on a Wi-Fi 6 AP that focuses the available output power in a specific direction only.
In a home network, you could use hardware extenders, but they're not sufficient for enterprise wireless networks.
Future possibilities for Wi-Fi range
The fundamentals of Wi-Fi don't change much as new technologies evolve. Wi-Fi 6 might have introduced new modulation efficiencies with orthogonal frequency-division multiple access, but the propagation variables of frequency, power and antenna patterns remain key.
Wi-Fi 6E gets us into the 6 GHz spectrum, and eventually, Wi-Fi 7 will use all the slices that the previous standards also employed: 2.4, 5 and 6 GHz.
Remember, the higher you go in frequency, the less range you get at the same power using similar antennas. There are plenty of permutations for getting longer range in a given direction -- with high-gain antennas -- or less throughput at the cell edge using standard max power and a typical omnidirectional antenna.
Looking forward, the lowest throughput of Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 7 may beat the highest throughput of an older standard at a given range.
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