Wi-Fi plays a crucial role in the modern smart home as it is the only wireless solution for high-power, high-bandwidth devices to communicate. (For example Smart TVs and media streaming devices, security cameras and video doorbells, smart speakers and displays, and more)
This has been recognized by the industry, which is why Wi-Fi is an integral part of the Matter 1.0 standard (alongside Thread for low-power, low-data-rate devices, and Ethernet).
Many of the devices I discuss on this website communicate over Wi-Fi and the need to have a strong Wi-Fi network is critical for a smart home to function smoothly.
In this guide to Wi-Fi, I discuss how Wi-Fi works, the various standards including the latest Wi-Fi 6E version, how you can improve coverage with Mesh Wi-Fi, how Wi-Fi compares to other smart home protocols, and best practices to keep your Wi-Fi network secure.
What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that allows electronic devices to connect to the internet and exchange data without the need for physical cables.
It uses radio waves to transmit information between devices, providing high-speed internet and network connections.
Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in homes and enables devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and smart home appliances to communicate amongst themselves on a local network while also accessing the internet wirelessly.
Typical Smart Home Devices that Communicate over Wi-Fi
While there are a number of dedicated smart home protocols such as Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Thread; Wi-Fi is far and away the most popular protocol for device manufacturers.
Some common Wi-Fi-enabled smart home devices include smart speakers and displays (e.g., Amazon Echo, Google Nest Hub), smart thermostats (e.g., Nest, Ecobee), smart plugs, smart locks, security cameras, video doorbells, smart TVs, streaming devices (e.g., Roku, Chromecast), and smart appliances like refrigerators, ovens, and washing machines.
Wi-Fi allows these devices to easily connect to your home network, enabling remote control, automation, and integration with other smart home devices and platforms. All of this without needing an additional smart home hub.
The use cases for Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Thread are a bit different from Wi-Fi. With these technologies, you are usually dealing with lower-power, lower-data-rate devices. I get into that in detail later in this article.
How does Wi-Fi work?
Wi-Fi works by converting data into radio signals, which are then sent between devices and a router.
The router connects to the internet, allowing data to be sent and received. Wi-Fi operates on specific frequency bands and follows a set of protocols to ensure devices can communicate with each other.
Different versions of these protocols offer varying levels of speed and range.
Wi-Fi networks primarily operate on two frequency bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; while a third band 6GHz has recently been introduced. Each of these bands has distinct characteristics that impact their performance and suitability for different environments and applications.
The 2.4 GHz band has a longer range, allowing signals to travel farther and penetrate walls and other obstructions more effectively. However, this band is often more congested due to the presence of numerous Wi-Fi networks and other electronic devices that use the same frequency range, such as microwave ovens and Bluetooth devices.
As a result, the 2.4 GHz band may experience greater interference, which can lead to slower data transfer rates and reduced network performance.
In the smart home world, you’ll find that practically all Wi-Fi devices can operate at the 2.4GHz band.
In contrast, the 5 GHz frequency band offers higher data transfer rates, making it ideal for bandwidth-intensive applications, such as streaming high-definition video and online gaming.
The 5 GHz band has more non-overlapping channels, which reduces the likelihood of interference from other networks and devices.
However, the higher frequency also means that the radio waves have a shorter wavelength, resulting in a reduced range and weaker signal penetration through walls and other obstacles.
Smart home devices that transmit video typically support 5GHz Wi-Fi, such as media streaming sticks like Chromecast and Roku; along with Wi-Fi security cameras and video doorbells.
Most Wi-Fi routers generally support dual-band operation, allowing users to connect to either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band depending on their needs and preferences.
6GHz Wi-Fi was introduced in 2020 as an extension of the Wi-Fi 6 standard. This frequency band offers higher performance, faster data rates, and lower latency, and can accommodate more high-bandwidth applications.
However, to take advantage of the benefits of 6GHz Wi-Fi, both the router and the connected devices need to be compatible with the frequency. As it’s a relatively new frequency, it’s taking time for device manufacturers to support it.
The 802.11 standards are a set of protocols for wireless communication in Wi-Fi networks. Each successive standard introduces improvements in terms of speed, range, and efficiency with Wi-Fi 6 providing the best performance to date.
|Standard||Frequency Band||Max Data Rate||Year Introduced||Remarks|
|802.11a||5 GHz||54 Mbps||1999||Less interference, limited range|
|802.11b||2.4 GHz||11 Mbps||1999||Longer range, slower speed|
|802.11g||2.4 GHz||54 Mbps||2003||Faster speed, the same range as 802.11b|
|802.11n||2.4 GHz & 5 GHz||600 Mbps||2009||Wi-Fi 4, MIMO technology, improved speed, and range|
|802.11ac||5 GHz||3.46 Gbps||2013||Wi-Fi 5, MU-MIMO, faster speed, 5 GHz only|
|802.11ax||2.4 GHz & 5 GHz||9.6 Gbps||2019||Wi-Fi 6, OFDMA, improved capacity and efficiency|
|802.11ax||6 GHz||9.6 Gbps||2021||Wi-Fi 6E, Extension of Wi-Fi 6, includes 6 GHz band support|
Note: Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) is due for release in 2024.
Wi-Fi 4 vs Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6
While Wi-Fi 4 offers dual-band support (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) and speeds up to 600 Mbps, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 provide significant improvements in performance.
Wi-Fi 5 operates exclusively on the 5 GHz band, achieving speeds up to 3.46 Gbps and better handling of high-bandwidth applications. Wi-Fi routers that support Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), also support all previous versions. So a Wi-Fi 5 router is usually dual-band, running a 2.4 GHz band at the Wi-Fi 4 level.
Wi-Fi 6, the latest standard, operates on both frequency bands and offers speeds up to 9.6 Gbps (in theory).
Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 improves network capacity and efficiency, making it ideal for smart homes with numerous connected devices and the need for seamless, high-speed data transmission.
When kitting out a smart home, I always recommend future-proofing it with a Wi-Fi 6 router.
What is Mesh Wi-Fi?
Mesh Wi-Fi (also known as a whole home Wi-Fi system) is a networking solution that uses multiple wireless nodes or access points, working together to create a single, seamless, and expansive Wi-Fi network.
Instead of relying on a single router to cover an entire area, mesh Wi-Fi systems distribute the wireless signal among the nodes, allowing for better coverage, improved performance, and reduced dead zones.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems are particularly useful in large homes where traditional routers struggle to provide consistent and reliable coverage.
They are also easily scalable, as adding new nodes can extend the network's range without compromising performance or requiring complex configurations.
Mesh Wi-Fi vs Access Points vs Wi-Fi extenders
Mesh Wi-Fi systems, access points, and Wi-Fi extenders are all solutions to expand Wi-Fi coverage, but they differ in functionality and performance.
Mesh Wi-Fi systems create a seamless network using multiple nodes that communicate with each other, ensuring consistent coverage and automatically routing data through the most efficient path. They can be wireless or wired.
Access points are wired devices connected to the primary router and create separate Wi-Fi networks, requiring manual switching between networks as you move around, but they offer stable performance.
Wi-Fi extenders work by capturing the existing Wi-Fi signal from the primary router and rebroadcasting it, effectively extending the network's range. However, extenders can suffer from reduced bandwidth and performance, as they rely on a single radio to send and receive data, making them less efficient than mesh systems and access points.
A lot of Mesh Wi-Fi systems support a backhaul option to allow communication with other mesh nodes. This can be done via an ethernet cable (similar to an access point) or wirelessly.
This dedicated communication channel between mesh nodes handles the transfer of data without interfering with the primary Wi-Fi signal used by devices. It ensures efficient and seamless data transmission across the entire mesh network.
With the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E, which supports the 6 GHz frequency band, mesh Wi-Fi systems can leverage this additional band as a dedicated backhaul option. 6 GHz backhaul offers increased bandwidth and reduced congestion compared to traditional 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz backhauls.
Dual-Band vs Tr-Band vs Quad-Band Routers
Dual-band routers support 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, providing a balance between range and speed. These are the most common type of routers in homes today.
Tri-band routers add an extra 5 GHz backhaul band to reduce congestion and enhance performance. These are typically used in Mesh Wi-Fi setups.
Quad-band routers (such as the NETGEAR Orbi Quad-band Mesh System), are relatively new and incorporate the new 6 GHz band introduced with Wi-Fi 6E. With quad-band routers, you can backhaul over 5GHz or 6GHz, providing more available channels, lower latency, and increased data transfer rates.
How does Mesh Wi-Fi compare to a Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread Mesh Network?
Mesh Wi-Fi primarily focuses on providing seamless internet connectivity for a wide range of devices, including smartphones, laptops, and smart home appliances.
It operates on the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz & 6GHz bands, offering high data transfer rates and relatively long range. Mesh Wi-Fi is ideal for streaming, browsing, and other data-intensive activities.
Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Thread Mesh networks, on the other hand, are designed specifically for low-power, low-data-rate smart home, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
They operate on different frequency bands: Zigbee and Thread use the 2.4 GHz band while Z-Wave uses the 900 MHz band. These networks provide better energy efficiency and longer battery life for connected devices.
Advantages of Wi-Fi over Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread
Wi-Fi supports much higher data transfer rates, making it ideal for streaming, browsing, and other data-intensive applications.
It is a ubiquitous standard, ensuring compatibility with a wide range of devices, including smartphones, laptops, and smart home appliances, without requiring additional gateways or bridges.
It operates on 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz & 6GHz bands, providing better flexibility in balancing range and performance.
Finally, Wi-Fi networks tend to have more widespread availability than these other technologies.
Disadvantages of Wi-Fi over Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread
Wi-Fi consumes more power than Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread networks, making it less suitable for battery-powered devices, as it may significantly reduce battery life.
Additionally, Wi-Fi networks can experience congestion and interference due to the high number of devices and networks operating on the same frequency bands, whereas Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Thread networks are designed to minimize interference and maintain reliable communication even in crowded environments.
Lastly, Wi-Fi networks typically have more complex setup and management processes compared to Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread networks, which focus on simplicity and ease of use.
For specific smart home and IoT applications, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Thread networks may provide more energy-efficient, reliable, and easy-to-manage connectivity solutions than Wi-Fi.
What is Matter-over-WiFi
The Matter standard is a new, open-source, and royalty-free connectivity standard developed by the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA). It’s being developed in collaboration with major tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon and it aims to simplify and unify smart home and IoT device connectivity with a single, secure, and reliable standard that works across different platforms.
Wi-Fi and Thread are the two network protocols that have been selected for Matter 1.0.
Matter-over-Wi-Fi refers to the implementation of the Matter protocol over Wi-Fi networks, enabling seamless integration and communication between Wi-Fi-enabled smart devices from various manufacturers that support the Matter standard.
By adopting Matter-over-Wi-Fi, in theory, smart home users can benefit from greater interoperability, simplified setup, and enhanced security across a wide range of connected devices.
Check out my guides both Matter and Thread for more on this.
How many smart home devices can you have on a Wi-Fi network?
Wi-Fi routers in a typical home can support between 30 to 50 devices simultaneously without massive performance degradation. However, newer high-end routers and mesh Wi-Fi systems can support up to 255 devices simultaneously. The Wi-Fi standard also plays a role: newer standards like Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) are designed to handle a larger number of devices with increased efficiency compared to older standards like Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) or Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac).
Remember that as you add more devices to your Wi-Fi network, the overall network performance may be affected due to increased bandwidth consumption and potential congestion. To maintain optimal performance, consider upgrading your router, using a mesh Wi-Fi system, or segregating your devices across multiple networks or bands (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 6GHz) to balance the load.
Quality of Service feature for smart devices
If you are struggling with multiple devices competing for limited bandwidth on your network, then the Quality of Service (QoS) network management feature can help. It allows you to prioritize specific devices to ensure they receive the necessary bandwidth and resources they need.
I’ve personally set my Wi-Fi security cameras and video doorbell to have this QoS feature so it helps prioritize traffic from these devices for real-time communications.
How do I keep my Wi-Fi network secure with so many smart home devices?
Here are some best practices to keep your expanding Wi-Fi network secure.
- Update firmware regularly: Ensure that your router, access points, and connected devices receive timely firmware updates, as these often include security patches and improvements.
- Strong passwords: Use unique, complex passwords for your Wi-Fi network and any connected devices that require authentication. Avoid using default passwords and change them periodically.
- Enable WPA3: If your router supports it, enable WPA3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 3) encryption, which offers enhanced security compared to its predecessors (WPA2 and WPA).
- Separate networks: Create separate networks or VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) for your smart home devices, keeping them isolated from your main network that houses sensitive information and personal devices.
- Guest network: Enable a guest network for visitors and less-trusted devices, preventing unauthorized access to your primary network and smart home devices.
- Disable remote management: If your router has remote management features, disable them to prevent unauthorized access from the internet.
- Disable WPS: Although Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) simplifies device connection, it can introduce vulnerabilities. Disable WPS and connect devices manually using a secure method.
- Monitor devices: Regularly review the list of connected devices on your network and promptly remove any unauthorized or unrecognized devices.
- Firewall and antivirus: Enable your router's built-in firewall, and ensure that all personal devices connected to the network have up-to-date antivirus software installed.
- Invest in security products: Consider purchasing network security products, such as hardware firewalls or Unified Threat Management (UTM) systems, to add an extra layer of protection to your smart home network.