What’s the difference between 5 GHz WiFi and 2.4 GHz or 4 GHz WiFi? Basically, 5 GHz WiFi is exponentially faster, but 2.4 GHz WiFi has a longer range and better penetration, which for those of us who live and work on yachts, is important.
Well, to be fair, it’s a bit more complicated than simply speed versus range and penetration.
5 GHz and 2.4 GHz are both frequencies upon which WiFi can be broadcast throughout your vessel. 2.4 GHz WiFi will support up to 450 Mbps or 600 Mbps, depending on the class of the router. 5 GHz WiFi will support up to 1300 Mbps. It should be noted that these are optimal speeds based on lab testing, rather than real-world speeds which depend on a number of factors such as the size of your vessel, hull and superstructure composition, the networking hardware in your devices, even the number of devices connected.
The 5 GHz frequency is less prone to interference than 2.4 GHz. This is because the 2.4 GHz frequency isn’t just used for WiFi. Many other appliances like electric door openers, cordless phones and A/V control panels use the same band. The end result is congestion that can lead to slower speeds and drop-outs. 4 GHz has similar issues with overcrowding. The 5 GHz band is much less congested, which means you will likely get more stable connections. You’ll also see higher speeds.
Many sources will cite a peak speed comparisons for 5 GHz, such as “5 GHz is 20 times faster than 4 GHz” This means that during the time it took to download just one piece of data with 4 GHz (like a movie), the same could have been downloaded 20 times in the same time period over a 5 GHz network — assuming your internet speed is not the bottleneck. For onboard data transfers between devices, or local onboard streaming, the 5 GHz band is what is 20 times faster.
However, in the yachting world, it makes no difference to have a 20x faster connection onboard, when you try and stream a movie at 128 kbps from Netflix – the 5 GHz won’t help you there, as the internet connection is the limiting factor. A 5 GHz WiFi network will NOT magically fix or overcome slow VSAT speeds or throttled Marina WiFi speeds. Where 5 GHz can and does deliver is when a hardwired shore connection or direct cable service is plumbed to the vessel when alongside.
While 5 GHz may be the faster of the three WiFi frequencies, 2.4 GHz has a longer range and better penetration. This doesn’t refer to covering a wider area, but rather to longer wavelengths that are better at penetrating solid matter. The shorter waves used by the 5 GHz band makes it less able to penetrate walls and solid objects. It’s also got a shorter effective range than the 2.4 GHz band.
To mitigate this issue, GCS recommends installing dual- or tri-band routers. A dual-band router is one that broadcasts both a 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz signal from the same unit, essentially providing you with two WiFi networks and the best of both worlds. Dual-band routers come in a few options, but most vessels use a simultaneous dual-band router. A simultaneous dual-brand router broadcasts separate 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi networks at the same time, giving you two WiFi networks that you can choose from when you set up a device. Some router brands also let you assign the same SSID to the two bands so that devices only see a single network—even though both are still operational.
A tri-band router broadcasts three networks simultaneously—two 5 GHz signals and one 2.4 GHz signal. Three frequencies alleviates network congestion. Most modern yachts have multiple devices that rely on a heavy use 5 GHz connection —like streaming high-resolution or even 4K video.
Setting routers aside, let’s get back to 5 GHz WiFi. If your yacht is currently using 2.4 GHz WiFi and you are wondering whether you need to upgrade to 5 GHz, it’s really all about what you need to do with it. If your guests and crew are experiencing dropped connections or if you need more speed for watching videos or playing games on the local network, then it makes sense to move to 5 GHz. There’s only so much speed you can get out of a 2.4 GHz network, even under ideal conditions.
If you’re already using a dual- or tri-band router and have both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands available, you’ll have to make some decisions on which one to connect your devices to. It’s tempting to just go ahead and use 5 GHz WiFi for any device that supports it and use 2.4 GHz for the rest—and you can certainly do that—but it’s not always the best strategy.
When GCS designs a WiFi network we think about how each device is used, as well as the placement and penetrating range of the Wireless Access Points (WAP). If a device only supports 2.4 GHz, then the decision is already made for that device. If a device supports both, GCS analyzes the pros and cons of adding it to the 5 GHz frequency. Does that device need the higher speed or is it for mostly checking email and browsing the web? Is the device experiencing dropped connections on the 2.4 GHz network and do you need it to be more reliable? Will the device need to be mobile on the vessel or need longer (i.e. more penetrating) range?
Each frequency has its pros and cons. A solid onboard WiFi network design borne from a comprehensive onboard WiFi survey will incorporate the best elements of both and keep up with the ever changing demands of WiFi access for owners, guests and crew.
GCS designs, installs, and supports WiFi for some of the world’s largest yachts. Contact GCS to schedule a review of your network and see how our WiFi solutions can optimize your Internet access.