Dan Howdle | February 1st, 2024
Like any new feature being touted by some broadband providers as a selling point, you're right to regard Wi-Fi 6 with caution. Like so many other buzzword features of the past several years – Dolby Atmos, Full Fibre and more – you need to conform to a specific set of circumstances to make use of it, and most households don't. Or, in the case of Wi-Fi 6, don't very much.
Many customers signing up to a new, fast or full fibre broadband deal now will get a router with Wi-Fi 6 as standard. But there do still remain broadband packages where whether or not you'll get it will depend on the package you pick. So the question does remain; do you need it? But also, what is Wi-Fi 6 exactly? And is it useful? Let's find out.
There's a lot of confusion around wifi and broadband these days, not least of all because the younger generation has decided to refer to their broadband connection as 'wifi' over the past five years or so. It can actually be quite hard therefore to understand exactly what it is we're talking about when discussing wifi.
For the purposes of this guide, we're going to stick to the traditional way of categorising these technologies. So before we continue, the commonly understood definitions are:
We now know what wifi is in the context of Wi-Fi 6, but in order to understand what the '6' means, we have to delve into the ultra-techy history of wifi protocols. If you would rather put pins in your eyes than read about that, then the short explanation is that there have been six generations so far and each basically is faster and more capable of sending and receiving data than the last. You can now skip to the next section, or stick around to find out about protocols and what they're capable of.
The following table provides an overview of where wifi started, and how the technology has been iterated and improved across generations one through six. It's also why it's hard to provide a simple answer to the question 'What is Wi-Fi 6?' – because any good answer has to be contextualised by the previous generations of the same technology. It's very much like 4G and 5G in this regard: It does the same stuff, only better.
|Key features over previous
|Wi-Fi 1 (802.11b)
|First widely adopted standard
|Wi-Fi 2 (802.11a)
|Higher speed, 5 GHz frequency
|Wi-Fi 3 (802.11g)
|Backward compatibility with 'b', faster speed
|Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n)
|MIMO, increased data rates
|Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
|5 GHz, wider channels, improved efficiency
|Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
|OFDMA, MU-MIMO, improved efficiency, increased capacity
Couple of important things to understand here before we move on. First, that those max speeds, which we've dutifully asterisked, are 'theoroetical limits'. In other word, they're the speeds scientists were able to get in a perfect laboratory environment. In the real world, maximum speeds are much, much slower. Fo example, most people won't be able to get a single connection over Wi-Fi 6 (to their phone, tablet, laptop, PC or whatever) of more than around 600-700Mbps.
That's because in the real world, unlike in a lab, a wifi signal has to deal with walls and metallic objects, interference from other sources of electromagnetism such as other wifi networks, and other obstacles.
The second thing to note is that not only will you need devices that are explicitly compatible with Wi-Fi 6 in order to make use of the extra speed it offers, most devices you can attach to a Wi-Fi 6 network don't actually need the sort of speed on offer. Not to mention the fact that many broadband packages now offered with a Wi-Fi 6 router aren't fast enough to take advantage of it either.
In short, here at the beginning of 2024, almost all of them do. However, things are rarely simple in the world of broadband packages and that remains the case here. Because although providers all have a Wi-Fi 6-enabled router option, few of them are offering it across their entire range of packages.
It makes sense at one level: Why supply a router capable of 700Mbps over wifi with a 35Mbps broadband package? But it also creates potential problems down the line when you want to upgrade to full fibre and take advantage of those nippy Wi-Fi 6 speeds – you'll need a new router from your provider, making that upgrade far from frictionless.
Here's a list of the UK's biggest providers, which routers they offer, and which packages you'll need to pick to get a Wi-Fi 6 router. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does demonstrate that, broadly speaking, you'll want to aim for higher speeds – full fibre or Virgin Media if you can get it – to get the best router.
|Wi-Fi 6 Router
|Sky Max Hub
|Any, but requires Wi-Fi Max upgrade for £7.50 to £10 per month (package dependent)
|Virgin Hub 5
|Gig1 only (1130Mbps)
|Smart Hub 2
|All except ADSL (10Mbps)
|Full Fibre 900 as standard, or upgrade any other full fibre package for additional £6 per month
|Not yet available
|Pro II Broadband packages only
|Any fibre or full fibre package
You may have noticed some providers are more generous with their top spec Wi-Fi 6 routers than others. For example, EE Broadband offers its Smart Hub to anyone, even those taking up basic fibre broadband, whereas Virgin Media won't offer you a Wi-Fi 6 router (Virgin Hub 5) automatically unless you plump for their flagship Gig1 package (though you can ask for one on its other fast packages once you've been a customer for a while).
First of all, Wi-Fi 6 routers are compatible with all previous-generation devices. That means your devices won't have to be Wi-Fi 6 compatible to work with a Wi-Fi 6 router. That's because all Wi-Fi 6 routers are also able to operate on all previous generations of the technology.
But, that isn't the same the other way around. You devices will need to be Wi-Fi 6 compatible to make use of the extra speed offered by the latest protocol. And as you may have guessed, that means newer, more high-end devices for the most part: Phones, tablets, laptops, PC motherboards and so on, all manufactured within the past few years and all at the mid-range to high end. Smart home devices, in fact, will likely never be Wi-Fi 6 enabled because coloured bulbs and thermostats and so on don't need that kind of bandwidth.
The following is a list of popular devices that are built to use the latest Wi-Fi 6 protocol. It is by no means exhaustive and is meant to offer a flavour or idea of the sort of devices you can expect to be compatible rather than a complete reference:
No. You don't. You may be wondering how we can give such a definitive answer here. Aren't articles like this one meant to hedge and say 'well, some people will and some people won't'? They generally do, but with Wi-Fi 6 we can confidently stae you don't need it. Whether you want it or not is a slightly different question.
The reason no one needs Wi-Fi 6 yet is there are no compelling cases where a 500-700Mbps connection over wifi would be advantageous. Only downloading huge files can take any real advantage of such speeds (20-30 times what you need for streaming 4K media, for example), and in the rare cases you may do such a thing, such as downloading a huge videogame there are other factors that are going to make doing so over a Wi-Fi 6 connection somewhat unnecessary and pointless. That's because:
Our advice now is going to be different from the advice we would offer you in five years time. As things stand, Wi-Fi 6 is a technology that's landed long before it's really needed. So the question of whether you should concern yourself with it becomes moot.
If you look at the tables around the middle of this guide you can see that newer devices are all becoming compatible with Wi-Fi 6, and that providers are increasingly making it a feature of their routers. Ultimately then, the answer becomes that you will have it when you need it, whether you want it or not.