Multi-Gigabit SOHO Networks are Here
America’s networking industry isn’t sitting on its laurels.
Xfinity just added a 200 Mbps speed boost to its high-end plans. For perspective, 200 Mbps is more than the average total download speed in all but the seven little countries with the highest download speeds.
AT&T has spun off its media properties, freeing up a lot it capital for investment in its core 5G and FTTH networks. Investors are excited for both the broadband business and the content business.
The first residential gateways (AKA “routers”) that support Wi-Fi 6e – the new 6Ghz spectrum band freed up by the Pai FCC – are on the market now, one from Asus and the other from Netgear. The gateways share a lot of design similarities and both are good for Internet connections faster than one gig.
Multi-gigabit LANs are rapidly becoming reality now that Realtek and Intel are promoting low-cost (five bucks) Ethernet chips that can run at 10/100/1000/2500 Mbps. Asus and Netgear use the Realtek part, presumably because it’s more mature.
Given that Realtek’s 2.5 Gbps Ethernet part is the same price as Intel’s very popular 1 Gbps part, it’s a no-brainer for OEMs to use it. Intel has dominated the Ethernet chip business since the demise of 3Com, so it’s good to see competition.
Both of the high-end gateways are in short supply, so there’s no question that gamers and other performance-sensitive users are gobbling them up. I suspect they’re both constrained by the tight market for semiconductors or all kinds. An odd consequence of Trump’s trade war with China is hoarding by Huawei and ZTE in advance of their respective bans.
Wi-Fi 6 is a Clear Upgrade
I picked up a Netgear RAXE500 to evaluate both multi-gigabit Ethernet service as well as Wi-Fi 6e. The office LAN runs a mixture of 1, 2.5, and 10 Gbps systems and switches already, so this was an obvious thing to do.
My speed tests say the Xfinity 1.2 Gbps Internet connection runs closer to 1.4 down and 40 Mbps up. This is far in excess of any of the individual apps that we – or anybody else – use, but it still feels faster than the 940 Gbps service.
This probably due in part to the RAXE500 being a better gateway than the Wi-Fi 5 Asus RT-AC88U it replaced. The 802.11ax Wi-Fi in Wi-Fi 6 is both faster and more secure than its predecessor, 802.11ac.
Wi-Fi 6e Isn’t There Yet
Speed tests are at least 20 percent faster on Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5, but Wi-Fi 6e is slower than regular Wi-Fi 6. It’s hard to evaluate 6e thoroughly, however, so this may change.
There is only one Wi-Fi 6e adapter on the market today, the Intel AX210 module. This is an M.2 card that’s a plug-and-play replacement for the popular Intel AX200 used in a number of laptops for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The problem is that the Windows driver hasn’t been officially released. This means downloading the beta driver from the Windows Insider program and manually installing it.
6Ghz Has a Lot of Limitations
Wi-Fi 6e is hobbled by all the power limits and sensing requirements the FCC imposed to ensure it wouldn’t interfere with incumbent utilities and other licensees. The good news is that it does penetrate sheetrock walls, but that’s pretty much the end of the list.
Comparing 802.11ac with 80 MHz channels to 802.11ax and 802.11axe with 160 MHz channels reveals that 802.11ax is about 20 percent faster than .ac when running in the 5 GHz band but only 10 percent faster in the 6 GHz band.
My testing is hampered by two issues, however: the Netgear gateway doesn’t have a “best channel scan” for 6 GHz, but it does have one for 5 GHz. It also didn’t play well with WPA 3, the new security mode for .ax, in the 6 GHz band. This latter problem probably has something to do with the beta Windows driver.
Wi-Fi 6 is Impressive in 5 GHz
On the plus side, my Apple and Windows devices all support .ax even though it wasn’t a thing when I bought them. Here’s to software upgrades!
Sadly, not all of my Wi-Fi devices even support 5 GHz, so they don’t get any benefit from the action going on in the higher frequencies. Fortunately, Amazon and Google have been supporting 5 GHz in their home automation devices for a while now.
Wi-Fi 6 has better radio engineering than Wi-Fi 5, and the performance upgrade is noticeable. Speeds are more stable and the Wi-Fi devices are more reliable. The security is also better as WPA 3 plugs some holes.
I’m looking forward to testing the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000 when it shows up on Friday or so. This was the first 6e gateway on the market, so the software should be a bit more polished by now.
[UPDATE: It’s here!]
I have a number of Asus gateways already, so I’ll be able to try mesh networks that are pure .ax as well as mixtures of .ac and .ax. Asus has a much more sophisticated user interface, so I’ll also be able to tweak Wi-Fi parameters.
Most of all, I’m hoping to see an auto channel scan in 6 GHz and much faster response from the GUI than Netgear provides. I don’t expect to see better performance in 6 GHz since by working assumption is that the performance impairments I’ve seen are Windows related.
First, don’t hold your breath waiting for 6 GHz Wi-Fi to provide you with the 9.6 Gbps top-end speed vendors tout. That’s nothing but a pipe dream because you’re likely to check in at 700 Mbps on a good channel set.
Next, upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 if you haven’t already. It’s faster, more reliable, and more secure than the ten year old 802.11ac is.
Finally, there’s no compelling reason to upgrade to a 6 GHz system unless you get the upgrade for free in the course of pursuing a faster than 1 Gbps Internet connection or a faster than 1 Gbps LAN in your home or office. Reasons to look for faster than gig speeds on your LAN include lots of cameras and a NAS/file server that serves up frequently-used files to a collection of desktop and laptop computers.
Even at 10 Gbps, chances are your NAS will still be slower than a PCIe 4.0 SSD on your local device, even with SSD caching. That’s just life until 40 Gbps interfaces and switches get a lot cheaper.
- Wi-Fi 5 is over
- Wi-Fi 6 is amazing
- Wi-Fi 6e isn’t here yet, but it won’t be long
- Multi-gigabit LANs are good
- We don’t have applications for multi-gigabit Internet connections
Most important of all: Future proofing is a sad misconception, but scalable networks are where the action is.
Note: No fiber optic cables were harmed by this evaluation.
See the Netgear vs. Asus router comparison here.