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

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

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Illustration of several Wi-Fi symbols: one filled in with white and the others just outlines.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

If you’ve ever bought a Wi-Fi router, you may have had to sort through specs that read like complete gibberish — like “802.11ac” or “a/b/g/n.” But going forward, Wi-Fi is adopting version numbers so that it’ll be easier to tell whether the router or device you’re buying is on the latest version.

In the past, Wi-Fi versions were identified by a letter or a pair of letters that referred to a wireless standard. The current version is 802.11ac, but before that, we had 802.11n, 802.11g, 802.11a, and 802.11b. It was not comprehensible, so the Wi-Fi Alliance — the group that stewards the implementation of Wi-Fi — is changing it.

All of those convoluted codenames are being changed. So instead of the current Wi-Fi being called 802.11ac, it’ll be called Wi-Fi 5 (because it’s the fifth version). It’ll probably make more sense this way, starting with the first version of Wi-Fi, 802.11b:

Wi-Fi 1: 802.11b (1999)
Wi-Fi 2: 802.11a (1999)
Wi-Fi 3: 802.11g (2003)
Wi-Fi 4: 802.11n (2009)
Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac (2014)

Now, instead of wondering whether “ac” is better than “n” or if the two versions even work together, you’ll just look at the number. Wi-Fi 5 is higher than Wi-Fi 4, so obviously it’s better. And since Wi-Fi networks have always worked together, it’s somewhat clearer that Wi-Fi 5 devices should be able to connect with Wi-Fi 4 devices, too. (Technically, Wi-Fi 1, Wi-Fi 2, and Wi-Fi 3 aren’t being branded because they aren’t widely in use, but I’ve labeled how it would look above for clarity.)

 Version number mockups
 Version number mockups
Image: Wi-Fi Alliance

The Wi-Fi Alliance even wants to see this branding go beyond hardware. So in the future when you connect to a Wi-Fi network on your phone or laptop, your device will tell you what Wi-Fi version you’re connected to. That way, if two networks are available — one showing “4” and the other showing “5” — you’d be able to choose the newer, faster option.

Now that the retroactive renaming is done, it’s time for the future. If you’ve been closely following router developments over the past year (no judgments here), you’ll know that the next generation of Wi-Fi is on the horizon, with the promise of faster speeds and better performance when handling a multitude of devices. It was supposed to be called 802.11ax, but now it’ll go by a simpler name: Wi-Fi 6.

Some confusion now to make things clearer later

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.

“The Wi-Fi Alliance expects very broad adoption of the term,” Kevin Robinson, the Alliance’s marketing chief, said in a phone call with The Verge. “It’s very unlikely it will be immediately universally adopted — that is just not the way any of these things work. But the industry will move to this generational approach of naming, and ultimately the consumers and industry both will benefit from that move.”

Robinson says the industry conversation around renaming Wi-Fi generations has been “very transparent” and that members have been discussing the shift with each other, so they should be aware and on board with the fact that it’s happening. The Alliance can’t force anyone to adopt the branding, and it will require a synchronized, concerted industry effort to change over in a way that doesn’t end up adding more confusion. But the Alliance thinks it will begin to happen as Wi-Fi 6 devices start to come out next year.

So far, at least one major consumer router company is on board with the change: Netgear, which in a statement accompanying the rebranding announcement said it believes “this will help customers better understand and appreciate” the difference between Wi-Fi generations. That suggests this language will start to appear in front of consumers next year, at least on some newer routers.

Overall, I do think it’s a good idea. No one should have to figure out which arbitrary collection of letters represents the version of Wi-Fi they want. Version numbers are intuitive and widely understood. Switching the branding could get messy, but it seems like a simpler future for Wi-Fi’s naming.