The Future Is Wireless
To access the Internet today, users typically go about it one of two ways: either by logging onto any available WiFi in the area or by using their smartphone’s mobile network (LTE, 4G, 3G networks), usually in that order of preference. There are many reasons for that. Mobile networks are managed and delivered by operators over cell towers. WiFi is most commonly used as the access point to a home, office of public network serviced through cable or fiber. While mobile networks offer more freedom of movement, WiFi offers more stable throughput. All this may be about to change with the introduction of 5G.
5G is the 5th and latest generation of cellular communications. It’s currently being rolled out worldwide to tackle the increasing pressure put on mobile networks, including from the growing number of IoT products joining the market daily. 5G is succeeding the incumbent 4G/LTE system which is currently the worldwide standard.
At a throughput of around 20Gbps (or the capacity to download over 600 songs in a single second), it’s reasonable to think that 5G should make WiFi obsolete. If only it were so simple.
Comparing WiFi and Mobile networks, is like comparing apples to oranges. While they’re both fruit, they have a very different look and feel. WiFi, in essence, is a wireless local area network. Devices connecting to it are essentially on the same network and can normally “see” each other, unless specified otherwise. A mobile network on the other hand, is typically only accessible by devices authenticated through a SIM card. It can span large areas, and although devices are invisible to each other, they are visible to the network provider.
This raises two issues, if 5G is to replace WiFi.
First, the frequencies used by mobile operators are owned by the state. Telcos need to obtain an authorization, thereby awarding them a sliver of the 5G spectrum. Then, they need to build their own infrastructure, which involves erecting cell towers all over the landscape, and connecting these to their backbone by laying underground fiber. Today, 3G and 4G cells can reach 150KM. A 5G cell is expected to reach 250… meters. It also has a hard time going through concrete. So while it may fix its throughput problem, it’s likely to kill the main benefit of mobile networks today: reach.
Second, mobile plans are significantly more expensive than wired Internet (through which WiFi is typically serviced). The lack of affordable unlimited plans for mobile data only exacerbates that problem. Based on the reach issues highlighted above, it’s unlikely that costs will go down with the introduction of 5G service. WiFi, in and of itself, is typically free to access, unless you’re paying to access top tier WiFi, like at a hotel.
Simply put, 5G, for all the performance improvement it promises, is not in for an easy adoption. WiFi, on the other hand, is already in your house, at the office, in hotels, and at coffee shops. As mobile communications are moving to their 5th generation, WiFi is moving into its 6th.
Enter WiFi 6
WiFi 6 (formerly 802.11ax if you’re interested), is set to replace WiFi 5 (formerly 802-11ac). Today, the theoretical maximum speed for WiFi is 3.5Gbps, and is expected to reach 9.6Gbps with WiFi 6. That’s less than half the speed of 5G. The main benefit of Wi-Fi 6 was never speed, however – it’s the capacity to handle more devices without hurting performance. This new technology is also designed to accommodate the Internet of Things (IoT), but uses optimization rather than abundant throughput.
In both cases, several changes will need to happen: as we transition into new generations of wireless communications, every connected device would need to be changed. Think of all the devices you have connected to the Internet, whether it’s mobile or WiFi. This includes all laptops, tablets, smart speakers, televisions – even today’s smartphones are mostly incompatible with either WiFi 6 or 5G.
For IoT, however, WiFi has a key advantage: greater control over the network. The way IoT is designed today, devices connect onto a known WiFi (as it’s technically a local area network, after all), in order to operate. In doing so, the WiFi network can be configured to give certain applications priority over the bandwidth to ensure continuity of service. When dealing with IoT real-time applications, even a second delay can cause potentially life-threatening consequences. Think of autonomous vehicles or emergency response systems, a delay could mean the literal difference between life and death.
Not only is the 5G network costly to build, but it doesn’t have the range and reliability to sustain IoT applications – and that’s going to be the focus of technology moving forward, so that poses a problem.
Still in spite of all the challenges that 5G faces, we are still not hearing much about WiFi6.
“Nobody was talking about WiFi 6, ”John Proctor, CEO and President of Martello Technologies, told CDN after the IoT613 event in Ottawa. “It’s like the marketing machine of 5G is determined to drive right over WiFi 6 so you can’t hear about it.”
Even with all of 5G’s faults, it’s unlikely it’s not going to prevent it from coming. Similar to today’s technology, we will see 5G mobile networks working with WiFi networks to give people the connection they need for various applications.
“As much as we see unified communications being the amalgamator of the two…we still have the issue of telco guys being different from the network guys in the enterprise setting,” indicated Proctor. “Is a network guy really going to get rid of his WiFi and put 5G aerial in, or is he going to take his current WiFi box out and put WiFi 6 in, which gives him better bandwidth and almost the same coverage. Being conscious of those operational aspects is something that is being understated at the moment.”
I guess we will see.