Wi-Fi 6, the latest wireless LAN technology, and 5G, the latest in cellular technology, have been developed in parallel and are now expected to hit the market around the same time. While the timing is purely coincidental, both are based on the same basic technologies and have a core mission to bring gigabit-plus throughput to end users.
As you evaluate Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G, their similarities beg some questions: Do we really need both technologies? Isn't it time to converge on a single wireless standard that can serve us indoors, outdoors, at work, at home and in public spaces -- and support all applications, including web access to voice, video and even IoT? The answers to these questions are not simple.
Cellular vs. wireless differences and similarities
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are designed to deliver similar services. Both are all-IP and for all traffic. Both use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing to make efficient use of airwaves. Gigabit throughput -- and even faster in some cases -- is possible with both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. In other words, applications and users will see little difference in performance between the two.
Cellular, however, is a carrier-based technology, and this remains true with 5G. Operators obtain exclusive license to specific blocks of spectrum across specific geographies via an auction process. Interference, then, shouldn't be an issue, and an operator can architect its specific network to meet its particular coverage, capacity and business objectives.
Wi-Fi 6, on the other hand, like all other Wi-Fi technologies, operates in unlicensed bands, meaning interference is always a consideration. But Wi-Fi can still perform admirably with the help of small cell diameters, over-the-air protocols to combat interference and a vast amount of wireless spectrum available.
Additionally, Wi-Fi 6's enhancements in spectral efficiency, reliability and battery power conservation should motivate network managers to upgrade sooner rather than later. Users, however, will still be on cellular networks, increasingly 5G, especially when out and about.
Cellular and wireless connections are key
Complicating the issue of Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G is the fact that 5G can be deployed in unlicensed bands as well, with experiments showing likely interference with nearby Wi-Fi installations of any generation. Building owners and operators, however, have a high degree of control over what's installed in their facilities. Good planning here should minimize any potential issues.
Indoor microcells, repeaters, distributed antenna systems and related techniques can bring cellular signals indoors without causing interference to Wi-Fi. Enabling the handoff of connections between cellular and Wi-Fi is perhaps the best overall solution and is currently a priority for Wi-Fi Alliance. Similarly, Wi-Fi has been, and will continue to be, deployed in high-demand areas without interfering with cellular technologies.
One area where cellular, including 5G, has had an advantage over Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6, has been in authentication. Connecting to cellular is easy; just turn on the mobile device. Intercarrier roaming is transparent.
Wi-Fi, on the other hand, usually requires selecting an available service set identifier and providing a security key. Wi-Fi Alliance has developed a technology called Passpoint that wants to make connecting to Wi-Fi as easy as connecting to cellular. The advent of Wi-Fi 6 is a great opportunity for this benefit to catch on.
Seeking a seamless connection
With 5G and Wi-Fi 6, I believe we have an environment that will be much more cooperative than competitive. Business-class handsets, for example, will likely support both technologies starting in 2020. And the handoff between the two will be transparent within a few years.
End users won't know which one they're using at any given time -- and won't care. Even simultaneous use of both capabilities will be transparent as well.
So, an epic battle of Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G? No, I think not. Instead, end users will move two steps closer to a better mobile network. While such a goal is worth fighting for, no actual combat will be required.