Those old enough to remember the early days of Wi-Fi will recall the exhilaration of connectivity without being tethered to the desk. It was a big deal at the time, but bandwidth was relatively narrow. Back then, 11 megabits per second (Mbps) was considered a big deal.
Since then, people have chased a combination of mobility and speed. Wi-Fi standards have rolled out every few years offering higher bandwidth. In the last few years, we've reached the point where we can get cable-free gigabit speeds.
Gigabit connections let you send and receive data at high speeds. A 1 Gbit/sec connection sends or receives approximately 125 megabytes every second, meaning that you could transfer a full DVD of data in under a minute. Gigabit-speed connections have been making their way slowly into residential and small business internet over the last couple of years as fibre connectivity rolls out. Even without the wide-area connectivity, though, these speeds are still useful on an internal LAN.
Wired Ethernet networks have supported gigabit bandwidths since 1999 but it's been far more difficult to squeeze that amount of bandwidth across a radio link. The first theoretically possible Gbit Wi-Fi standard emerged in 2013 as 802.11ac, which was capable of hitting 3.5 Gbits/sec in theory. The theory part is important. Vendors love citing high speeds, but they test the devices in laboratory conditions, optimised for high data transfer.
In real-world conditions, people use Wi-Fi devices in offices with thick walls and long corridors, not to mention multiple floors. They place Wi-Fi access points in sub-optimal areas, such as inside cabinets, underneath desks, and in corners, making it difficult to achieve the same coverage across the whole workspace.
Then, there is electrical interference to consider. Many Wi-Fi access points operate at the 2.4 GHz frequency, which is very crowded. When someone turns on the microwave or make a call using a cordless phone, it will probably interfere with your signal. Some versions of the Wi-Fi standard also support 5 GHz operation, but this drops the range dramatically, meaning that people too far away from the access point will suffer bandwidth drop-offs.
There have been more developments since then. 802.11ax, now called Wi-Fi 6, was ratified late last year and we have already seen routers rolling out to support it. It offers a theoretical 9.6 Gbps, meaning that you're likely to get gigabit speeds far more easily using the newer equipment.
So, how can you get those real-world gigabit speeds in the office? If you already have an 802.11ac (now called Wi-Fi 5) access point, you can operate it on 5 GHz and ensure that it is properly placed in the office. Ensure that it has more than one antenna, in a configuration known as MIMO, to get the best range and speed. Even then, though, you may be hard pushed to break the gigabit threshold.
Wi-Fi 6 can give you gigabit speeds for individual devices, but only if the mobile client supports the standard. Otherwise, it will fall back to Wi-Fi 5, probably landing you back at sub-gigabit speeds. Even with Wi-Fi 6 support, not all devices will probably be the same. The number of antenna inside your mobile device, along with other technical capabilities, will make a difference.
Whether or not you can get over the gigabit threshold on your mobile device may be missing the point. The real benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that it supports more devices at the same time in dense areas. The increased bandwidth means that it can offer fatter data pipes for each device that connects to it concurrently. That means individual mobile devices might not get gigabit speeds, but they will suffer less congestion and get higher speeds at better ranges than last-generation access points.
So, we are realistically now in a gigabit-speed Wi-Fi world, but rather than measuring your individual device's throughput, think of these speeds as common bandwidth, distributed equitably across a number of devices. When this bandwidth increases, everyone benefits – even if they don't hit the magic number they were expecting.