Wi-Fi 6 vs Ethernet: who is taking the connectivity crown?

Wi-Fi 6 vs Ethernet: who is taking the connectivity crown?
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us one thing about technology, it is that fast and continuous connectivity is the lifeblood of business and everyday life. The number of individuals seeking enhanced networking options to facilitate remote working has quite literally exploded in a matter of days, as the world adapts to the so-called ‘new normal’.

About the author

Will Liu is the Managing Director of TP-Link UK.

The demand for device mobility has never been greater and many of us are now placing a sudden dependence on our home network setup. End users must now think carefully about the best form of connectivity that will both power their devices effectively whilst keeping work and life on the move in such uncertain times. 

Fortunately, the world has more connectivity options than ever before, allowing us to weather the storm, stay connected and remain productive. From fixed broadband to mobile (3G, 4G, 5G) networking, global devices and connections are growing faster (10% CAGR) than both the population (1%) and rate of Internet users (6%). Teamed with advancements in performance, hardware and security, modern connectivity continues to rewrite the way we provision devices in our everyday lives - with huge benefits to the user experience.

Out with the old?

We’ve also recently entered the sixth generation of Wi-Fi - Wi-Fi 6 - a brand new standard able to support the growing number of connected devices and improve the connectivity experience for end-users yet again. Traditional forms of obtaining a strong connection - such as the Ethernet cable - would have previously taken precedent among users seeking a stable internet supply. However, modern Wi-Fi is now firmly positioned as a genuine alternative to an Ethernet connection for both consumers and businesses with a wealth of devices now at their disposal. 

But, what are the trade-offs between the two and which will come out on top in the race for seamless connectivity? Let’s look at the facts.

The birth of Wi-Fi

Prior to the birth of Wi-Fi 6, the performance of Wi-Fi leaving any given router was said to be half-duplex. Users were only able to benefit from half the speed from a router compared to the speeds enabled by a static, plugged in Ethernet cable. This makes Ethernet particularly useful when using sophisticated on-premise hardware or graphic-intensive applications. However, as developments in Wi-Fi have progressed significantly in recent years, Wi-Fi 6 has paved the way for technologies like 4x4 MU MIMO, which facilitates a wireless connection of almost the same speed as an Ethernet - without the need for cables running into various physical ports.

This presents one very clear and obvious differentiator to set Wi-Fi 6 and Ethernet apart; accessibility. Despite high speed and capacity, Ethernet cables offer very little by way of movement. Whereas, the ability to stream, talk and communicate from anywhere within range of a wireless access point is far more convenient and natural - particularly in times where users require the ability to connect, interact and work from a range of locations, regardless of the device. 

Besides the most obvious advantage of device mobility, where else does Wi-Fi 6 win where Ethernet falls short? The latest iteration of Wi-Fi connectivity has the ability to deliver faster speeds than Gigabit data transfer over wireless - presenting a huge advantage in the era of the smart home. When compared to WiFi 6, the standard Ethernet cables have - until now - provided the fastest form of Internet connectivity. For example, when you look at the theoretical top speed, Wi-Fi 6 reaches 9.6 Gbps (compared to Wi-Fi 5 which clocks in at 6.9 Gbps). In real world testing, Wi-Fi 6’s single stream speed has been raised to 1.2 Gbps - 20% faster than connecting via Gigabit Ethernet.

No chance encounter

When teamed with other technologies such as Airtime fairness, 160MHz Channel Width, Beamforming, OFDMA, and BSS colour, Wi-Fi 6 becomes even stronger. Doing so, it can deliver the level of reliable and high-performing wireless now needed to meet the demand from end users and a growing number of connected devices. With that said, the advanced capabilities of Wi-Fi 6 and compatible technologies have not miraculously appeared overnight. 

To unleash its full potential, next generation devices boast dedicated co-processors embedded into routers. Unlike the Ethernet cable, this form of innovation is designed to solely target the performance of wireless connection, in order to deliver the speed and capacity now expected as standard among users. 

Whether at home or in any other business environment, the provision of convenient, secure and reliable connectivity is the heart of modern IT decision making. Technically, Ethernet and Wi-Fi 6 are still generally neck and neck on performance. However, we no longer have to future-gaze to predict whether Wi-Fi prevails over Ethernet as the desired universal standard. We simply have to take a look at the world around us right now. 

During a time where flexibility is essential to almost every aspect of modern life, Wi-Fi 6 can unlock the level of accessibility needed to maximize performance for all device types and scenarios that our world has to offer.

Will Liu is the Managing Director of TP-Link UK.