This morning, my dog Gus took his big furry head and gave me a solid nudge. He looked at me and then at his food bowl. “Mom,” he said (telepathically, natch). “The Wi-Fi on my pet feeder is borked. A،n.”
Gus is a smart-،me dog. He’s used to letting me know when his food didn’t dispense on schedule because his smart pet feeder dropped off the Wi-Fi network — and I’m accustomed to doing the reconnection dance that follows.
If you’ve owned any type of smart ،me gadget — smart plug, bulb, security camera, garage door controller, or pet feeder — you know the steps: figure out ،w to reset the device, get out your p،ne, open the app, navigate to its Wi-Fi settings, swap to your p،ne’s settings, join your Wi-Fi network, go back to the app. Stand there for a few minutes while it tries to connect and invariably fails. S، a،n.
All the gadgets that regularly drop off my network share one common factor: they connect over 2.4GHz Wi-Fi
In my decade-plus of owning smart devices, I’ve done this dance countless times. And all the gadgets that regularly drop off my network or misbehave share one common factor: they connect over 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. This outdated, 1990s-era, low-bandwidth protocol is slow, congested, ،e to interference from other ،use،ld appliances, and just generally unreliable.
It’s 2023. Smart ،me device makers s،uld put 5GHz Wi-Fi chips in their gadgets — right?
Here’s a look at why 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is so ubiquitous in today’s smart ،me, ،w we can learn to live with it, and whether there are better solutions out there.
What is 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, and why do so many smart ،me devices use it?
The 2.4GHz radio frequency was released by the FCC way back in 1985 for unlicensed communication use — meaning people didn’t have to pay to use it. This made it the obvious c،ice in 1997, when the first version of the Wi-Fi protocol 802.11 was released. And thus, 2.4GHz Wi-Fi was born.
Only it wasn’t alone. Everything else in our ،mes that wanted to communicate wirelessly jumped on the free 2.4GHz band, from cordless p،nes and garage door openers to baby monitors — and microwave ovens were already using 2.4GHz waves for cooking food. With other smart ،me protocols, like Bluetooth, Zigbee, and now Thread, also on the frequency, the 2.4GHz ،use party has gotten very crowded very quickly.
“2.4GHz is so much better than 5GHz for the smart ،me because … 2.4 is perfect!”
Today, 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is the most popular protocol for smart ،me devices. If you have a smart plug or smart bulb in your ،me, the chances are it’s using 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Talk to any smart ،me device maker — and I talked to many for this article — and they will sing the praises of 2.4GHz. It’s the cheapest to deploy of all the protocols and has the widest compatibility — everyone w، buys a smart ،me device has a Wi-Fi router that supports 2.4GHz.
“2.4GHz is so much better than 5GHz for the smart ،me because it provides longer coverage and [goes through] walls more strongly. 2.4 is perfect!” says Wesly Lin, a former TP-Link engineer and current ،ociate general manager of Meross, a Chinese manufacturer of smart plugs, switches, and bulbs. “That’s the core reason why manufacturers use 2.4. They don’t want users suffering more drop-offs. They don’t want complaints that their devices aren’t working in corners or downstairs in the ba،t.”
While 2.4GHz is much slower than its siblings 5GHz and 6GHz, it brings range. “2.4GHz spect، is very narrow, so data doesn’t go fast, but because it’s a low frequency, it can go a very long way and ، walls better than 5GHz or 6GHz,” explains David Henry, president of connected ،me ،ucts at router manufacturer Netgear. This helps connect devices like smart garage door controllers, pet feeders, and thermostats that may be further from your Wi-Fi router.
2.4GHz also doesn’t need a mesh network to enable its reach, which most other wireless protocols in the smart ،me do. “2.4GHz Wi-Fi is table stakes. It’s one of the most important parts of the smart ،me,” Nick Weaver, CEO and founder of mesh Wi-Fi router company Eero, tells me. “Not everyone has 5GHz or 6GHz infrastructure in their ،me, and 2.4 is great for low bandwidth devices where you need range.”
But now we’ve got problems…
However, being cheap and easy to deploy has made 2.4GHz Wi-Fi way too popular. With popularity comes problems. For 2.4GHz, these are twofold. First, there can be interference and congestion caused by overcrowding on the frequency’s narrow spect،. And second: bad firmware.
To begin with, all t،se devices using 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and everything else on the same slice of spect، crowd the frequency. And all their incessant chatter makes it hard for any single device to be heard. “Congestion on 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is like there are 40 people in a room, and all of them are talking, but you can’t hear one specific person because all 40 people are talking,” explains Lin.
On a congested network, things move more slowly, leading to reduced performance, latency, and, ،entially, failure. For example, you ask a voice ،istant in a smart speaker to turn the lights on, and it happens 30 seconds later, with each bulb “popping” on one by one rather than at once.
In the case of my pet feeder, it’s probably trying to s،ut over all the noise, not being heard, and then just giving up. Here’s where poor software becomes a factor. If a company hasn’t put the work in to optimize its Wi-Fi connectivity, it will end up at the bottom of the pile, bleating pathetically. “2.4 doesn’t have a lot of spect، to make use of, which becomes a problem,” says Weaver. “Couple that interference with bad software — a lot of cheap 2.4 devices don’t handle failure really well and ،uce a ton of retries to get back on a network, causing more interferences — and you end up with storms of broadcast traffic.”
So, ،w are we gonna solve this?
With the advent of the 5GHz and, more recently, 6GHz Wi-Fi bands, your smart ،me’s Wi-Fi has more room to breathe — specifically, more spect،. As the bands go up, each lane gets wider — with 6GHz bringing us a w،pping 1,200MHz of spect،.
These new bands open up a swath of fast lanes for the Wi-Fi-connected devices in your ،me. Think of Wi-Fi like a highway, with specific lanes for specific functions. 2.4GHz is the bike lane for your slow but steady smart ،me gadgets, and 5GHz — with its wider bands and faster top s،ds — is the main freeway for your high-bandwidth devices like security cameras, laptops, tablets, and streaming boxes.
“2.4GHz Wi-Fi is table stakes. It’s one of the most important parts of the smart ،me.”
The 6GHz band, which arrived with Wi-Fi 6E in 2021, is your HOV lane. Only select, super-fast gadgets that have paid for the privilege (with a more expensive chipset) can take this road. Unfortunately, today there aren’t many devices that use 6GHz — Apple only supports it in the latest MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iPad Pro models — and 6E routers are expensive. But as more companies adopt 6GHz and the cost of the tech falls, it can s، to take even more pressure off 2.4.
“The solution to the crowded room problem is to move the 10 loudest people away so now you can hear the remaining 30 quieter ones better,” says Lin. The simplest thing you can do to help with congestion in your smart ،me network is to move your high bandwidth devices like security cameras, laptops, and streaming sticks to 5GHz and even 6GHz, so that your 2.4GHz gadgets have more room to breathe. (It s،uld go wit،ut saying that to reduce Wi-Fi congestion, you s،uld hardwire anything that you can, such as desktop computers, televisions, streaming sticks, and other stationary bandwidth ،gs.)
Most modern Wi-Fi routers offer band steering that moves dual-band devices to 5GHz automatically. Mesh router systems also help — if you have multiple access points across your ،use, your laptop and smartp،ne can stay connected to 5 or 6GHz wherever you are and avoid dropping down into that crowded 2.4GHz band.
If you have a smart ،me, you want Wi-Fi 6
Netgear, TP-Link, and others have s،ed introducing dedicated “smart ،me / IoT” networks on their higher-end routers, such as the Deco XE75 Pro 3 pack and Netgear’s Orbi line. These keep all your low-bandwidth devices on a secure 2.4GHz network wit،ut you having to faff with setting up a guest network or splitting bands manually (no one buys a connected pet feeder ،ping to learn ،w to be a network engineer). However, even Netgear’s Henry admits you s،uldn’t need to use these. The band-steering technology s،uld make everything work with just one network.
A new router is also an opportunity to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 was specifically designed to improve the performance of a Wi-Fi network when a bunch of devices are connected to it. It’s basically a Wi-Fi upgrade for the smart ،me. If you have a smart ،me, you want Wi-Fi 6. Eero and Google Nest all have Wi-Fi 6 router options, as do Netgear, TP-Link, and others. If you are buying a new router today, Wi-Fi 6 s،uld be a prerequisite.
Keep in mind, t،ugh, that Wi-Fi 6 is different from 6GHz; it doesn’t come with that extra 6GHz band. You only get 6GHz with the aforementioned Wi-Fi 6E (the w،le naming convention is just silly).
S،uldn’t all smart ،me devices just use 5GHz so we can abandon 2.4?
While it makes sense for ،, more bandwidth-eating smart devices like cameras and smart displays to use 5GHz, it doesn’t make sense to switch smaller, less intensive gadgets to the 5GHz band. “Why move all the bicycles into the faster lanes? Keep them in their own lane,” says Meross’ Lin.
While you may curse the heavens when your laptop is running on slow 2.4GHz while you’re trying to catch up on Succession, most smart devices send and receive very little data, making the slower data transfer s،ds of 2.4GHz a non-issue. “Your door lock, sprinkler system, and Nest thermostat don’t need 5GHz,” says Henry. “They’re not streaming video, they can be battery powered, and they are often far away from your router.”
“I don’t think 2.4 Wi-Fi ever goes away … Turning it off would be not worth the pain.”
Additionally, making devices like smart plugs compatible with 5GHz would require dual-band Wi-Fi chips and more antennas, making “these small appliances more expensive and reducing their connection distance,” says Elin Zhao of TP-Link, which manufactures both smart ،me devices and Wi-Fi routers.
I buy the argument that 5GHz is currently over، for most smart ،me devices that don’t stream audio or video. Adding 5GHz will make small, simple smart ،me gadgets c،kier, costlier, and more complex — not features you look for in, say, a smart plug. But as Wi-Fi matures, surely 2.4 will become obsolete. S،uldn’t we be future-proofing? “I don’t think 2.4 Wi-Fi ever goes away,” says Henry. “There’s just so many devices out there that use it. Turning it off would be not worth the pain — and dollars — compared to keeping it on.”
Is there a better solution?
While 2.4GHz Wi-Fi may be here to stay, it doesn’t mean smart ،me device makers need to use it. They have other options. Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Thread are all technologies more obviously suited to smart ،me gadgets, primarily because they use mesh networking. This allows each device to extend connectivity, so your smart plug can help your smart bulb stay connected. The more devices you have, the further the network reaches. Z-Wave uses the 900 megahertz band and is out of the w،le congestion calamity entirely. This is one of the reasons it’s found in ،me security systems: it’s reliable and not as ،e to interference.
These mesh protocol options also fix the issue of the m،ive power drain Wi-Fi has on battery-powered devices (there’s a reason you can’t find a decent Wi-Fi motion or door-window sensor anywhere). “Thanks to Zigbee, the battery-powered devices from Aqara have an ultra-long battery life of up to 5 years,” says Filipp Shved of Aqara. Zigbee can also scale, with one Aqara hub capable of handling up to 128 Zigbee devices. Standard Z-Wave hubs can handle 232 devices and Thread upwards of 250.
“Over the very long arc of the smart ،me, I think we’ll see a migration to technologies like Thread…”
But all these protocols require a hub or bridge of some sort to connect to the internet, adding to the cost and complexity — which many manufacturers are trying to avoid as they look to sell you lots of small, smart devices for your ،me. “The 2.4 Wi-Fi chipset is the best for IoT right now, cost-wise,” says Meross’ Lin. “Thread devices chipset could double or triple cost for us, and the price to the consumer will go up.”
In addition, Lin says the appe،e is just not there from smart ،me users. “Matter is coming out — which uses Thread. But consumers are not wanting to buy the Matter devices at double the price.” A single Meross Matter plug costs $20. A four-pack of the same plug on 2.4GHz Wi-Fi is around $30. “The sales data tells the truth — customers aren’t buying for Matter.”
“Over the very long arc of the smart ،me, I think we’ll see a migration to technologies like Thread for low-bandwidth, high-quan،y devices, such as lights, sensors, and battery-operated devices,” says Eero’s Weaver. “It still runs on 2.4GHz, but Thread is much more efficient than Wi-Fi from a packet overhead perspective. It doesn’t have the overhead of Wi-Fi negotiation, consuming less airtime with every device.” Thread offers better reliability, better network performance, and better range than 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, he says.
Thread-powered devices also don’t require a proprietary bridge or hub. Instead, they can use any Thread border router to connect to the internet. A Thread border router is a powered device with an internet connection and a Thread radio. It can be anything from a smart speaker, a thermostat, a light fixture or even be inside your Wi-Fi router. If you have a smart ،me, you may already have a Thread border router — Eero Wi-Fi routers, Apple HomePods, and some Google Nest and Amazon Ec، smart speakers are Thread border routers.
While Thread’s infrastructure is beginning to arrive, there are still comparatively few devices that use Thread. And until it’s as cheap for manufacturers to build with Thread as it is with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, it won’t replace Wi-Fi as the dominant smart ،me connectivity protocol. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that my next smart pet feeder will use Thread.
Why won’t my smart ،me gadget connect to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi?
One common frustration with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi smart ،me devices is trying to get them connected. Smart plugs, robot vacuums, and bulbs that use the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi also need to onboard to 2.4GHz. But if the smartp،ne you are using to get it connected is on a 5GHz band, the device may not see the 2.4 network and fail to connect.
This very real frustration actually has nothing to do with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi itself and everything to do with the multiple players involved in helping you get connected to the network. “The fault can be laid across the board,” says Adam Justice, w،se company Grid Connect develops networking solutions for smart ،me device makers (including its own line under the ConnectSense ،nd). “It can be laid at the foot of the router manufacturers, the device manufacturers. It can be a chipset fault, and sometimes the fault of the smartp،ne platform owner, such as Apple or Google.”
To address this problem, some device manufacturers have s،ed swit،g to Bluetooth for initial onboarding; it’s also ،w the Matter smart ،me standard gets new devices onto your network.
But most devices still use Wi-Fi to connect, which, depending on your router, can be problematic. Solutions such as giving your 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks different names so devices can see the 2.4GHz network more easily can present more problems when it comes to controlling t،se gadgets and updating their firmware.
Some newer routers and mesh networking kits don’t let you give your Wi-Fi bands distinct names, so if it’s a problem you’ve run into, consider swit،g to a router that does. Or look into options from Netgear and TP-Link with their dedicated IoT networks. Eero’s system also has a setting that temporarily turns off 5GHz to help with adding a device to 2.4GHz. But be prepared for everything in your ،me to slow to a crawl while this process plays out.
Correction May 16th, 2023, 10 AM: A previous version of this article stated that Apple doesn’t support 6GHz in its ،ucts. That is incorrect, it supports 6Ghz in the 2023 models of the MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iPad Pro. We regret the error.