With every new cellular phone standard announcement comes claims about the impending demise of WiFi. When 3G was announced, the promise was that it would make WiFi (802.11b) redundant, which clearly turned out to be incorrect. 4G (LTE) was going to put WiFi (802.11ac) in the shredder. And now 5G’s message is that it will cover the inside and outside of homes and buildings. See ya’, WiFi.
Given this history, why is the next generation of WiFi, WiFi 6 (802.11ax), important? Do we even need it in the 5G/wireless landscape? I think we need better questions.
Going Beyond the Marketing Headlines
Of course, some of the messaging around 5G is just typical marketing hype, showcasing the favorable points and ignoring the less favorable ones. For example, 5G with 4 Gbps will be faster than WiFi (.11ac) with 1.3 Gbps. The immediate counter argument is that WiFi 6 (.11ax) with 9.6 Gbps will be faster than 5G. But here’s the important question—will these speeds be achieved in real life? Remember, we’ve seen this before, these glossy promises of high-speed access being wiped away by the hard truth of “no connection in the basement,” or something similar.
(And here’s an even better question: How good will 9.6 Gbps WiFi be in the basement, if the connection to the home is 300 Mbps, or even less? What problem is this solving?)
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 WiFi 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) uses 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 need to be served, sharing the same frequency band over multiple channels.
In contrast, WiFi uses 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. However, to get the internet at your front door, you need to pay an internet service provider a subscription fee, including a simple router that is 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 WiFi and 5G, but do customers really care? Customers care about fast internet access—anywhere—at a decent price, no matter the technology. 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 WiFi off-load (where a cellular network off-loads traffic to WiFi connections), the border between the two different technologies is already blurring.
WiFi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax)
Better coverage inside the home is one of the key characteristics of the new generation of WiFi, now called WiFi 6 (based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard). The distributed concept behind this new version of the WiFi standard (also called WiFi 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!
A Better Way of Coexisting
Despite a few nice crossover products, when talking about cellular and WiFi, it still feels like two separate worlds, and that we’re switching back and forth between them. Fortunately, most phones are somewhat smart, and when the WiFi 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 WiFi” and WiFi attempts to take back the connection, leaving you in limbo with a nonworking WiFi and a nonworking cellular connection. In those moments, the solution is to turn off WiFi to end the battle and avoid poor response times.
But wouldn’t it be better if there were a good hand-off between the WiFi connection and the cellular connection, so that the user always gets the best performance?
As a consumer, I wouldn’t care whether I am connected via WiFi 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 outdoors. There are many initiatives underway in this area, all in the category of “WiFi off-load,” and in principle the technology is there. But it isn’t mainstream yet, due to multiple competing and legacy interests.
The Better Question
If we can agree that the consumer simply wants the best internet connection—anywhere, at any time and at the most affordable price, then providers should focus on how to deliver the best service most efficiently to their vast subscription base.
So the question is, “How can 5G and WiFi 6 work together to implement this, instead of playing one against the other?” There should be no “right” technology choice or choosing the one best technology for a given application.
Hopefully this different way of thinking will also help providers concentrate on today’s real bottleneck—how to get high-speed internet to the home.