Wi-Fi 6: The compatibility issues you should know about

Wi-Fi 6 has a lot of momentum at the moment, but it's still early days -- most products do not follow the new standard. What issues can you expect with Wi-Fi 6 network and how can you fix them?

What Is a Wi-Fi 6 Network and How Do You Get One?

Wi-Fi 6 is an industry certification for products that support the new wireless standard 802.11ax.

Wi-Fi 6 Certified- Wi-Fi Alliance logo

Wi-Fi 6 is often referred to as "high-efficiency wireless", boasting increased capacities, improved resource utilization and higher throughput speeds. You can read more about what the standard entails here: Wifi 6: What can we expect from 802.11ax and the designation Wi-Fi 6 itself here: Wi-Fi 6, 5, 4 ... New designations and what they mean.

The very first Wi-Fi 6 products hit the markets around the end of 2018 / early 2019, and the latest high-end products, such as smartphones, now support Wi-Fi 6. However, this support is only relevant when you also have a wireless network that supports the standard. Only if you use a wireless access point (usually a router) with Wi-Fi 6 certification / support for 802.11ax, will you have a Wi-Fi 6 network.

If your wireless network does not support Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6 support in a client will have no bearing on the performance and functionality the client gets on the network.

Here at Eye Networks we currently have two access points for sale that support Wi-Fi 6: Zyxel EX5501 and AX7501.

The reports and results we see so far about the deployment of Wi-Fi 6 indicate, among other things, increased performance in terms of better throughput both on 802.11ax clients and some 802.11ac clients on ax networks.

As usual in the early days of a new technology, we also see some compatibility issues. These are challenges anyone who installs new routers with Wi-Fi 6 may face, and we address them in this article.

What Is Compatibility?

"Compatible" basically means "works with". Wi-Fi 6 is designed to be backwards compatible with previous standards. That means that the vast majority of Wi-Fi products you have in your home probably work with a Wi-Fi 6 network, although almost none of them support 802.11ax themselves.

So what we mean when we say that a client has compatibility issues is that it does not work normally (or whatsoever) on a Wi-Fi 6 network.

802.11ac, also known as Wi-Fi 5, was until recently the latest and best standard on the market, and there are still many products on sale that follow this standard; both routers, repeaters, mesh networks and, not least, lots of different Wi-Fi clients. Most of these clients will be compatible with a Wi-Fi 6 network without having support for the very latest standard.

What Clients May Cause Problems?

A client is any device that can connect to a Wi-Fi network. This tends to bring smartphones, computers, and tablets to mind. We know of specific problems with some older products in this category, and you can read more about these issues below.

It is however worth keeping in mind that electronics such as panel heaters, bathroom scales, and smoke detectors can also be Wi-Fi clients. And while we have not recorded any specific cases yet, it might be useful to be aware that based on experience, this type of electronics is never early to adopt or support the latest Wi-Fi technology (for a related example, see our article How to connect Mill ovens to mesh wifi).

PCs That Use Intel Wireless Adapters

Several Wi-Fi adapters from Intel have known issues with Wi-Fi 6 networks. These problems are mostly resolved with a driver update, but it's important to know that those updates are not part of any Windows updates, so they will need to be updated manually.

Intel also has a dedicated application called Intel® Driver & Support Assistant, which keeps Windows up to date with the latest driver versions for their products. You can find an overview of adapters and recommended driver versions in this knowledge base article from Intel.

As an additional note: If a pc has the Wi-Fi card Intel® Dual Band Wireless-AC 8265 from 2016, this can cause major problems for Wi-Fi networks regardless of wireless standard, because the pc floods the wireless network when it comes out of hibernation. However, this issue can also be resolved with a driver update. You can read more about this specific issue in Renzo Notter's blog here: Wi-Fi DoS by RF-Jamming from faulty Intel Driver. There are, in other words, several good reasons to make sure that drivers are up to date.

Not sure what wireless adapter you have? Open Device Manager in Windows, locate "Network Adapters" and click to view the full list. Your Wi-Fi adapter should be listed here.

If you are an internet service provider and want to prevent users with Intel adapters from having problems, an option may be to turn off support for Wi-Fi 6 on customers' 2.4 GHz networks for now.

Products That Do Not Support WPA3 "Mixed Mode"

WPA3 is the latest standard for Wi-Fi encryption. This is separate from Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax, but in practice the same products will often be first or early to implement both.

If some devices experience problems connecting to the Wi-Fi 6 network, the problem may be in missing WPA3 support or the "WPA3/WPA2 mixed mode" feature. Mixed mode is intended to ensure that older clients can still connect, but in practice there are some clients who do not recognize this setting and refuse to connect at all.

Such problems are likely to apply to a number of older products, but reports we have received so far suggest that it applies at least to the following:

  • Older Apple products, such as iPad 4 (from 2012) and other products using iOS version 12 or earlier
  • Older Microsoft Surface models

As WP3 is much safer than WPA2, we do not recommend downgrading the security of WPA2 to let older clients connect.

Is That It?

Certainly not. A list of compatibility issues is never exhaustive or finished. Our customers are ISPs who, like us, have extensive experience in rolling out new technology in home networks, and who know that such networks deal with unique blends of new and old technology, challenges due to building materials, layouts, interference from neighbors, and so on.

We have only just begun to get the first reports about how Wi-Fi 6 really performs when faced with this reality. We will keep this article up to date with issues we find and that are reported to us.


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