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Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: key differences between the two

Posted by Daniel Noworatzky on Mar 13, 2024 10:26:00 AM

Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 - TeleDynamics blog

Wireless networks are often characterized using designations that reflect the specific capabilities they deliver. Commonly encountered classifications today include Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6. But what exactly do these terms signify, and is the distinction between them important?

This article delves into these standards, highlighting their differences and shedding light on the prospects of Wi-Fi technology.

Wireless standardization and certification

Wi-Fi is a technology that has been standardized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) through its well-known IEEE 802.11 working group, which is responsible for wireless LAN (WLAN) standards. While the IEEE develops the standards of this technology, the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization, is responsible for promoting the technology and certifying Wi-Fi products for conformity to ensure interoperability. These two organizations function complementarily. 

In recent years, the various specifications of the IEEE have been branded by the Wi-Fi Alliance using a generational notation. This started officially in 2008 with the designation of IEEE 802.11n as Wi-Fi 4. Wi-Fi 0 through Wi-Fi 3 were retroactively named but held no official naming status.

The choice between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are currently the two most common generational designations of Wi-Fi devices on the market and correspond to the IEEE standards 802.11ac and 802.11ax, respectively. There are distinct differences between them, and knowing them will help you to decide which to choose. 

In general, equipment certified for Wi-Fi 6 will be more capable and costly. If your application doesn't require the advanced capabilities of the latest technology, then settling for the more economical Wi-Fi 5 will be a more cost-effective and, overall, wiser choice.

What is Wi-Fi 5?

Wi-Fi 5, defined by the IEEE 802.11ac standard, was officially released in 2014. The Wi-Fi Alliance separated the introduction of Wi-Fi 5-certified wireless products into two phases, called "waves." Wave 1 802.11ac equipment shipped starting in the summer of 2013, before the official release, based on a draft of the standard.

In 2016, Wave 2 was introduced, which included the full-fledged capabilities outlined in the standard. All of today's Wi-Fi 5-certified devices on the market are considered Wave 2, so the "wave" designations have since fallen out of use.

Some of the most noteworthy characteristics of Wi-Fi 5 include:

  • Theoretical maximum speeds approaching 7 Gbps (typical real-world speeds of around 1 to 3 Gbps)
  • Support for 80 MHz (mandatory) and 160 MHz (optional) channel bandwidths
  • Support for eight spatial streams using MIMO
  • Downlink multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) support for up to four simultaneous clients
  • Use of 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation), an enhanced encoding scheme that increases data density on the waveform
  • Advanced features, including beamforming and dynamic frequency selection (DFS)

What does all of this technobabble translate to in practical terms? Compared with previous generations, Wi-Fi 5 delivers a substantial increase in data transmission speeds and improved efficiency in using the physical medium—the electromagnetic spectrum frequencies.

Notably, the Wi-Fi 5 standard has been developed exclusively for the 5 GHz frequency bands, but this does not mean that 2.4 GHz clients are unsupported. Certified devices are generally backward compatible with the earlier 802.11n standard (Wi-Fi 4), which operates in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, so a Wi-Fi 5 device can connect to networks using 802.11n at 2.4 GHz.

However, it will not utilize the advanced features and higher speeds of the 802.11ac standard in that case. The primary benefits of Wi-Fi 5, including higher throughput and efficiency, are realized only when operating in the 5 GHz band. If you need those capabilities while using 2.4 GHz, another option is to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6, defined by the IEEE 802.11ax standard, comes in two flavors: Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, where the "E" stands for "extended." Wi-Fi 6 was officially released in 2019, while its 6E counterpart was approved in 2020. 

The primary benefits of Wi-Fi 6 over its predecessor include the following:

  • Improvements to provide better performance in high-density client scenarios
  • Increased data rates per client (by approximately 37%)
  • Increased throughput per area, resulting in an overall network speed increase exceeding 300% 
  • Use of orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), delivering more efficient spectrum use, resulting in the improvements described above
  • 1024-QAM modulation and improved MU-MIMO mechanisms, which add to the technology's capabilities
  • Support for operation in the traditional 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, well as the introduction of a broader, less crowded, and "quieter" 6 GHz band (5.925-7.125 GHz) for the 6E version
  • Improved security with support for Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3)
  • Improved power management with support for the Target Wake Time (TWT) protocol 
  • Lower latency and network delay

Although Wi-Fi 6 provides a relatively modest per-client increase in speed, the primary focus here was on improving overall network capacity and performance, and the benefits are substantial. Ultimately, this also significantly improves the user experience because clients will perceive fewer slowdowns, especially in crowded situations. 

Beyond this, the wireless medium utilization has become even more efficient, and security has been further improved with the latest military-grade industry-standard WPA3 security suite. Unlike W-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6's capabilities can be enjoyed in both the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands.

As its name suggests, the extended version, Wi-Fi 6E, delivers operation in the 6 GHz frequency range, further enhancing the technology's performance.

Summary of Wi-Fi 5 and 6 differences

The following table summarizes the differences between these technologies and puts into perspective the kinds of applications that each supports.



Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)

Frequency band

5 GHz

2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, 6 GHz

Theoretical maximum data rate

Up to 6.9 Gbps

Up to 9.6 Gbps

Channel bandwidth

Up to 160 MHz

Up to 160 MHz, with additional support for 80+80 MHz channels


Up to 8 spatial streams

Up to 8 spatial streams





Not supported

Supported, allowing more efficient use of channels


Supports MU-MIMO for downlink (from access point)

Supports MU-MIMO for both uplink and downlink

Target Wake Time

Not supported

Supported, improves battery life in devices

Spatial frequency reuse


Basic Service Set (BSS) Coloring for improved spatial reuse


Higher than Wi-Fi 6

Lower than Wi-Fi 5

Efficiency and capacity

Less efficient in high-density environments

More efficient, especially in high-density environments with numerous connected devices



WPA3, offering enhanced security features


Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi6: which should you choose?

So, which should you choose? 

Suppose your organization's wireless environment involves very high client densities and requires high network performance, superior overall network throughput, and support for demanding network services. In that case, Wi-Fi 6/6E is worth investing in.

It will future-proof your organization and deliver the performance you need. Alternatively, suppose your requirements are for a comparatively low user-density scenario with conventional network services and non-mission critical applications. In that case, Wi-Fi 5 will be more than enough to support your requirements.

The future of Wi-Fi

As you might expect, Wi-Fi technology doesn't end at Wi-Fi 6E. Wi-Fi 7 products are already appearing on the market, even though we don't expect the officially published standard until near the end of 2024. Even Wi-Fi 8 is on the horizon, with an intended publication date sometime in 2028.

Both of these generations of Wi-Fi will deliver mind-bending benefits in terms of speed and spectral efficiencies, with Wi-Fi 7 focusing on increased performance and Wi-Fi 8 concentrating mainly on ultra-high reliability. As these technologies progress, we'll make sure to keep you posted on their development.


Wi-Fi is an indispensable technology, delivering essential connectivity to a world increasingly reliant on wireless communications. As we've seen, both Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 offer unique capabilities tailored to meet the evolving demands of wireless clients.

Wi-Fi 5, with its significant leap in data rates and efficiency over its predecessors, set the stage for the modern, high-speed Internet era in the 5 GHz band. Wi-Fi 6 takes these advancements further, addressing the challenges of network congestion and efficiency in increasingly crowded environments. 

Both of these technologies, as well as their successors, are helping deliver a future where networks are faster, more accessible, and more reliable, even in the densest of environments. As technology continues to evolve, the capabilities and applications of Wi-Fi will undoubtedly expand, further embedding this technology as a cornerstone of modern communications.

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Topics: Wireless, Trends, Wi-Fi

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