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Wi-Fi now has version numbers, and Wi-Fi 6 comes out next year

Quick quiz: Which is better, 802.11n or 802.11ac?

 

The answer, if you’re familiar with Wi-Fi standards coming from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is 802.11ac — and by the way, the upcoming 802.11ax is better than both.

But in an effort to make the wireless networking terms more useful and less like alphanumeric gibberish, the Wi-Fi Alliance trade group has some new names it wants for those technologies: 

The idea is to be clearer about what’s better and what your phone or home router can handle without sounding as much like an electronic engineer. Not that there’s anything wrong with electronic engineers, but even techies can have a hard time remembering that IEEE 802.11 means wireless networks, IEEE 1394 governs FireWire data connections, and IEEE 802.3 is about Ethernet network connections.

The underlying Wi-Fi specifications will keep their IEEE technical names, of course. The Wi-Fi Alliance comes later in the development process, just before the point when consumers get involved, smoothing the way with compatibility tests that let device manufacturers put reassuring certification logos on their product boxes.

Even though there were older versions of the Wi-Fi specs — 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g — the Wi-Fi Alliance isn’t going to try to reach back that far in time and attach any 1, 2 or 3 version numbers to them.

Aside from the new name, there aren’t many surprises. As expected, WiFi 6 (802.11ax) is expected to bring support for higher data transfer speeds, increased capacity, improved power efficiency, and better performance in environments with a lot of wireless activity.

If you’re wondering why 802.11ax is is WiFi 6 instead of WiFi 1, it’s because the WiFi Alliance is also giving new names to most of the older versions of the wireless protocol:

  • 802.11b = WiFi 1
  • 802.11a = WiFi 2
  • 802.11g = WiFi 3
  • 802.11n = WiFi 4
  • 802.11ac = WiFi 5
  • 802.11ax = WiFi 6

The Wi-Fi Alliance says that it expects companies to adopt this numerical advertising in place of the classic lettered versions. It also expects to see earlier versions of Wi-Fi start to be referred to by their updated numbered names as well.

Because the Wi-Fi Alliance represents just about every major company that makes any kind of product with Wi-Fi in it, its actions usually reflect what the industry wants. So presumably, tech companies are on board with the branding change and will start to advertise it this way.

But it seems very possible that there will be some confusion in the interim as consumers get used to the new naming and companies aren’t standardized based on what convention they use. After years of seeing letters, it may be just as confusing to suddenly see a number. And if, say, the next iPhone advertises support for 802.11ax instead of Wi-Fi 6, then this branding effort could go nowhere.

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