When is a wireless connection faster than a wired one?

When one’s a lot newer than the other. Wireless technology has come a long way since the early 2000s. Back then most devices were able to communicate at 1-2 megabits per second. Even then, it was common for wired devices to communicate at 100 megabits per second.  At least that was the theory… most device weren’t fast enough to communicate with their own hard drives that quickly.

Wired networls

Wireless technology grew faster than wired technology, in part because wired technology for homes and small businesses had already reached the point where they really didn’t need to be faster. Most networks top out at 1000 megabits per second, and where internet speeds (even today) barely top out at 100 megabits per second and the fastest home hard drives won’t read faster than about 500 megabits per second… it just seems like bragging rights to go much faster than that. There are absolutely faster wired networks, but you generally won’t find them in homes. Home users don’t want wired networks, no matter how fast they are. Wires just aren’t cool, I guess.

Wireless networks

In the meantime, wireless networks grew up starting in the ’00s.  They’ve always had good theoretical speed, although actual real-world speeds are lower. The 802.11g standard from a decade ago would still serve us today at 54Mbps, that is if you could actually get those speeds. With 54Mbps you would have no problem even with the best quality 4K streaming you can get on any service.

Wireless technology has always been very dependent on distance and strong signals. However, it’s gotten easier to understand how to really maximize a signal for wireless, using large antennas on the router and multiple data streams.

Wi-Fi 6 beats wired.

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest evolution of wireless technology. It was first rolled out in 2018 and we’re just starting to see affordable products entering the market today.  The base speed of Wi-Fi 6 starts at 1,200 megabits per second (1.2Gbps.) However, using multiple antennas and multiple streams you can get speeds of 4.8Gbps with fairly inexpensive consumer equipment.

More importantly, Wi-Fi 6 bridges the gap between theory and reality. It uses technologies that should make it possible for people to get better speeds and lower latency from their Wi-Fi equipment. I’ve said before that latency is more important than raw speed. You don’t generally do big downloads that would benefit from fast download speeds. Even when you’re streaming video, you’re actually getting a series of very short downloads. Since latency describes how fast a download will start, it really is the part of the process that makes things feel faster.

Will wired Ethernet catch up?

In a way it already has. In business, there’s 10-Gig Ethernet, with its promised 10,000 megabits per second. It’s a common technology and there are even faster technologies that are used for the backbone of the internet. You just won’t see them in your home In fact, you’ll never really reach Wi-Fi 6’s theoretical maximum of 4,800 megabits per second either. Still it’s worth noting that at the very least it’s possible: your wireless connection could actually go faster than your wired one.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.