Author: Chris Bulbulian // Last updated: March 3, 2020
Most of us see two different Wi-Fi networks produced by our routers. One may end in "2.4G (or have no suffix) while the other ends in "5G". This article will cover the difference between the two, as well as discuss a newer approach that combines them into one network.
Those two networks are different frequencies with different performance characteristics. One is slower but doesn't travel as far, the other is faster but covers less distance.
When kept separate, you connect to one or the other. You may be on the slower network when just a few feet from your router, and may have to have to switch to the faster one to maximize performance.
With a mesh approach, the two networks are combined visually. You only need to connect to one, but they will continue to operate as two distinct networks invisibly in the background. Your router will steer your device between the two behind the scenes. You won't have to do any manual switching.
Easier implementation (one network to connect to) and thus less effort.
Minimal control over which frequency the router set you to behind-the-scenes.
Keep in mind this isn't always your choice. Some router manufacturers only do it one way or the other. You'd need to consult with the router manufacturer for more info.
Wi-Fi Bands Explained
When Wi-Fi was deployed around 1999, your typical consumer router operated on a single band -- the 2.4 GHz frequency. This operates on 3 non-overlapping channels and suffers immensely from congestion because of the sheer number of devices that compete for spectrum on the 2.4 GHz band. This includes but is not limited to: microwave ovens, cordless phones, baby monitors, security cameras, game controllers, wireless mice, wireless keyboards, and garage door openers. Between the limited channels (only 3) and all of these devices that we may own many of, that potentially means a noisy wireless space with plenty of interference.
Interference means the two devices need to try extra hard to speak to each other among a sea of noise, having to re-send the same data over and over until the other end receives it successfully. This can result in reduced speeds, higher latency (time for each request to occur), and connectivity issues.
Another band was also introduced in 1999, but this one operated on the 5 GHz frequency. Routers that support both are coined "dual band" in that they support the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band. While introduced at the same time, it wasn't until around 2014 (when the Wi-Fi technology improved) that mainstream adoption of 5 GHz came to be. 5 GHz operates on 24 non-overlapping channels and does not suffer from congestion or interference in anywhere near the capacity of 2.4 GHz. Generally speaking, it is the superior network in terms of usability and day-to-day experience.
However, compatibility is not universal. Certain "basic" devices may not support it (such as printers, e-readers, smart appliances, and more) because those devices don't need anything more than an internet connection. Low to mid-range devices (basic smartphones or computers) typically only support 2.4 GHz. Also, older Wi-Fi devices (made before 2015) almost never support 5 GHz.
Whats the difference?
The two biggest differences are speed and distance.
The higher the frequency, the faster the speeds -- and thus 5 GHz can potentially achieve much faster speeds than 2.4 GHz. Usually this is in the magnitude of 5 to even 25 times faster.
At the same time: the higher the frequency, the harder it is for the signal to penetrate objects in its path. This means it cannot pass through walls, floors, or furniture as effectively. While many equate 5 GHz as simply having less range, it can in fact go quite far if the barriers between router and device are minimal -- such as in a loft, an open-concept home, or when deployed outdoors.
The general rule-of-thumb is that a 2.4 GHz signal covers most of a typical 2400 sq ft home, where as 5 GHz signals travels approximately "2 or 3 rooms" from the router. This varies home to home, especially with different building materials used.
|2.4 GHz||5 GHz|
|802.11b/g/n protocols||802.11a/n/ac protocols|
|Greater range (up to 300 ft, approx)||Lower indoor range (up to 80 ft, approx)|
|Speeds up to 100 Mbps (20-60 typical)||Speeds up to 600 Mbps (100-400 typical)|
|Universal Compatibility||Limited Compatibility (based on device specifications)|
|3 non-overlapping channels||24 non-overlapping channels|
|Congested with many Wi-Fi signals||Far less Wi-Fi congestion|
|More likely to have experience impacted by non-Wi-Fi interference (baby monitors, cordless phones, microwaves, etc)||Less likely to be impacted by non-Wi-Fi interference|
Manual Method: Picking the Better Network for the Use Case
Let's say you have Home 2.4 and Home 5.
Since dual band routers came to be, we've had to tell our devices about the 2.4 GHz network and/or the 5 GHz network separately. If your phone (for example) has both networks saved in its Wi-Fi list, it may pick one or the other to use when you get home -- usually the first one it sees. It doesn't usually discriminate and it may not know the "Home 5" is better. Some devices let you set the priority/order, but this isn't universal.
This also means it may not switch automatically to "Home 5" when you're closer to the router, and it may not switch automatically to "Home 2.4" when you're further away. Usually you as the user have to manually pick the other network.
If you only want to use one network, you can tell that device to "forget" the other. However, you may run into situations where the other band works best -- then you're back to re-connecting to it, and the "switching back and forth" game rears its head again.
Automated Method: One Network
This is where the mesh approach comes in. Instead of "Home 2.4" and "Home 5", you'd have one and only one network called Home. The router will still utilize both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands in the background, but you won't have to worry about picking one over the other.
From there, which frequency your device will use will be determined automatically by your router. Which it puts you on is based on a variety of factors such as compatibility, distance, network usage, signal strength, and more.
This means you as the user don't ever have to switch back and forth. You connect to "Home" and leave it up to your router to steer your devices between the two frequencies behind the scenes.
- A single network to concern yourself with, while still utilizing both frequencies
- No need to switch between networks depending on the situation
- Seamless hand-off between networks
- You no longer have direct control over which frequency you're on
- Your device may connect to the slower 2.4 GHz band, despite you being near the router
- Only select devices can display which frequency they're currently using, so it may be entirely invisible to you which the router steered you to -- you may need to use specialized Wi-Fi analyzers to see which network you're connected to
If using Ting's ZyXEL router:
Customers installed before August 2019 were set up with two separate Wi-Fi networks by default. Since then, we switched to this unified mesh approach.
If you prefer one method or the other, it's a quick setting change in the router. Your router may need a firmware change (software upgrade) to allow this functionality.
We can assist with this! We're available 24/7 at 1-844-846-4994.