It seems that with every new cellular phone standard, the buzzards start circling over Wi-Fi. 3G was going to make Wi-Fi (802.11b) redundant, which clearly didn’t happen. 4G (LTE) spelled the end of Wi-Fi (802.11ac), except that it didn’t. And now the 5G is supposed to cover both the inside and outside of homes and buildings, so surely Wi-Fi will soon no longer be needed. Right?
Not so fast. (No pun intended.)
You’ve Got to Go Deeper than the Headlines
Of course, some of the messaging around 5G is just marketing hype, showcasing the favorable points and ignoring the less favorable ones. The claim is that 5G with 4 Gb/s will be faster than Wi-Fi (.11ac) with 1.3 Gb/s. The immediate counter argument is that Wi-Fi (.11ax) with 9.6 Gb/s will be faster than 5G.
But will these speeds be achieved in real life? We’ve seen this before, these glossy promises of high-speed access being wiped away by the hard truth of “but I still cannot get a decent connection in the basement,” or something similar, because—and here’s the real headline—how good will 9.6 Gb/s Wi-Fi be in the basement, if the connection to the home is 300 Mb/s, or even less? It seems like we’re working on the wrong issues, doesn’t it?
If we want a real sense of where the developments are heading, it’s probably a good idea to go a little deeper than marketing headlines. What are the real facts that can guide us? For starters, laws of physics tell us that radio waves (both Wi-Fi and 5G) have difficulties penetrating objects such as walls and foliage, and their data rates decrease with distance. Radiating more power helps a little, but it also causes unwanted noise, making equipment more expensive. In addition, there are legal maximum output power ratings to adhere to.
There are also economic laws. Cellular (3G/4G/5G) utilizes licensed bands. Mobile operators (service providers) pay money to use this spectrum and need to roll out a network of (connected) base stations to cover a large area. They then need to recover this money with subscription fees. In such a service area, many users must be served, sharing the same frequency band over multiple channels.
In contrast, Wi‑Fi leverages unlicensed spectrum, which is available to all for free. However, the output power is very low, so the radio signal (more or less) stays in your own house or building and has a favorable (so-called) spectral reuse. The same frequency band can be used in every house. To get the internet at your front door, though, you need to pay an internet service provider a subscription fee, including a simple router that’s part of that fee. If you want, you can buy a more expensive router as well.
So, in this frequency-band perspective, there’s an interesting technology split between Wi‑Fi and 5G, but do customers really care? Customers care about fast internet access—anywhere—at a decent price. In contrast, operators/providers care about providing good internet service everywhere (at home and around the home) and keeping costs under control. Interestingly enough, with so-called Wi-Fi off-load (where a cellular network off-loads traffic to Wi-Fi connections), the border between the two different technologies is already blurring.
Those Who Do Not Learn History…
It’s interesting to note that the Wi-Fi world is rooted in the commercial computer industry, while 5G is rooted in the more legislated telephone industry. So, telephone operators (now service providers) have more affinity with 5G than with Wi-Fi. When most telephone operators started to deliver internet to consumers, it was delivery to the front door. What happened inside the house was the consumer’s responsibility.
There’s another distinction between cellular and Wi-Fi: a mobile phone uses a service subscription that requires a SIM card. This SIM card ensures that phones are connected to subscriptions and don’t use the network illegally. But Wi-Fi doesn’t need a SIM card; the frequency band is license-free. Not surprisingly, the mobile world is looking for ways to make the SIM card redundant, but initiatives like soft SIM and eSIM aren’t making the desired progress because they’re too cumbersome and/or aren’t sufficiently secure.
The consequence of these histories is that the consumer’s internet connectivity world is split into two parts: mobile (with a subscription and SIM) and stationary (with a router at home). This scenario is now well-established. Of course, wireless internet connectivity can be troublesome, and initially telephone operators used this hassle as an opportunity to promote cellular as an alternative for Wi-Fi. The good news is this mentality is changing.
Cable operators have also entered the picture. They’ve found that, for many consumers, Wi-Fi coverage in the home was a major concern. Cable operators responded by extending their service to include good coverage inside the home. This is forcing cellular operators to do the same, as well as to develop a better quality of wireless indoor internet service.
Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax)
Better coverage inside the home is one of the key characteristics of the new generation of Wi-Fi, now called Wi-Fi 6 (based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard). The distributed concept behind this new version of the Wi-Fi standard (also called Wi-Fi mesh) helps to distribute internet to every room in the home, with the main router at the front door, and small satellite routers (also known as repeaters) on every floor and in every room. This enables internet service providers to sell and support solid internet connectivity everywhere in the home—all good news!
There are also interesting crossover products, though, such as the FRITZ!Box 6890 from German supplier AVM. This box is a traditional router, providing Wi-Fi everywhere in the home. But it doesn’t use DSL, fiber, or cable — it uses LTE. So, this box has a SIM card and operates the same way as if you use your mobile phone as a hotspot to connect your tablet to the internet, for example. The difference is the FRITZ!Box makes this configuration permanent in your house. The trick is to ensure you have the right subscription service (preferably unlimited data) to avoid high mobile charges for your private wireless hotspot.
We Need a Better Way of Thinking About This
Despite these crossovers, when talking about cellular and Wi-Fi, it still feels like two separate worlds and that we’re switching back and forth between them, like a car shifting gears. Fortunately, most phones are somewhat smart, and when the Wi-Fi connection isn’t working, the phone automatically switches to the cellular network. But there’s a real problem if you’re “on the edge of Wi-Fi” and Wi-Fi attempts to take back the connection, leaving you in limbo with a nonworking Wi-Fi and a nonworking cellular connection. In those moments, the solution is to turn off Wi-Fi to end the battle and avoid poor response times.
But wouldn’t it be better if there was a good hand-off between the Wi-Fi connection and the cellular connection, so that the user always gets the best performance against the lowest cost?
As a consumer, I wouldn’t care whether I’m connected via Wi-Fi or, in the future, 5G. The system just provides the best connectivity, whether at home and indoors, or outside, or on the road. I would then have one subscription for my internet at home and for my cellular service outdoors—but with a twist. I’m talking about a different way of thinking.
In this scenario, a service provider (whether it’s a mobile operator or a cable operator) provides the highest-quality wireless internet access service, both at home and on the road. Many initiatives are underway in this area, all in the category of “Wi-Fi off-load,” and in principle the technology is there. But it isn’t mainstream yet, due to multiple competing and legacy interests.
Let’s Make the Consumer the Winner
It may be clearer that the customer genuinely isn’t interested in next-generation Wi-Fi or in the “next G.” The consumer simply wants the best internet connection—anywhere, at any time, and at the most affordable price. This is the way everyone—whether cellular providers, hotspot providers, or internet service providers—can think about how to deliver the best service most efficiently to their vast subscription base.
The key is to envision 5G and Wi-Fi 6 working together to implement this, instead of playing one against the other. There should be no “correct” technology choice or a winning technology for a given application.
And hopefully this different way of thinking will also help to concentrate on today’s real bottleneck—how to get high-speed internet to the home.
Cees Links is a Wi-Fi pioneer. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed, ultimately becoming household technology integrated into PCs and notebooks. He also pioneered the development of access points, home networking routers, and hotspot base stations. He was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the Wi-Fi Alliance. He was also instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee to become the basis for the Zigbee sense and control networking.
Cees was the founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, now part of Qorvo, and is now the General Manager of the Wireless Connectivity Business Unit. He was recognized as Wi-Fi pioneer with the Golden Mousetrap Lifetime Achievement award.