You’ve heard of 5G. Now meet Wi-Fi 6

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

With much of the US 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.