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Will 5G replace Wi-Fi? No, but maybe in some use cases

Geographically remote locations, large public venues and manufacturing sites are a few of the key areas in which business 5G technology could provide real benefits.

The march toward ubiquitous 5G is well underway with many people now carrying the latest cellular technology in their pockets. But true 5G performance is still ambiguous because of the variability in frequency bands and allowed deviations from strict performance specs. And yet, no matter how you slice it, 5G and its potential are still impressive.

Early predictions that 5G would somehow render Wi-Fi obsolete have proven to be misguided. At the same time, however, 5G fits nicely into some emerging use cases and could replace Wi-Fi or other technologies in certain situations. Let's explore a few important 5G business use cases.

1. Geographically large, dynamic networked environments

Many different 5G use cases fall into this big bucket. Road sign and sensor networks, port and fleet operations, and mobile broadcasting are just some of the many examples where 5G's lower frequencies can provide connectivity to far-flung network devices. With higher speeds and the lowest latencies to date of any cellular technology, ever more possibilities in this general category will continue to be realized.

Of course, in order to use these systems in sometimes desolate settings, the networks need to exist. This will be an interesting area to watch as 5G replaces earlier technologies, as well as to see how the carriers increase their coverage areas so that more of the 5G promise can be achieved.

2. High client density, challenging RF environments

Wi-Fi network designers have always struggled to construct successful Wi-Fi environments in places like professional sports arenas and industrial production facilities. Tightly packing hundreds of Wi-Fi cells into a large public venue (LPV) and managing the radio frequency (RF) on both the infrastructure and client sides can be an excruciating paradigm during events when thousands of clients show up with a wide range of device types and behaviors.

In both public and private varieties, 5G has the potential to redraw the LPV space and reduce the reliance on fragile Wi-Fi designs. 5G's control protocols and ability to accommodate an order of magnitude more clients per cell make it a potentially exciting choice in the LPV space.

Like stadiums, manufacturing facilities can also be a challenge for Wi-Fi design and the limitations of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz unlicensed frequencies. Production facilities often require wire-speed timing to run at their most efficient, and 5G at least claims it can deliver that better than 4G and Wi-Fi.

Private 5G in the 3.5 GHz band provides clean spectrum options that manufacturing could once only dream of. And, where 5G's short-range millimeter wave frequencies can be used, high bandwidth wireless options -- like for video surveillance -- become quite real.

3. Backhaul for short-term connectivity

The world is full of locations where no LAN or Wi-Fi coverage exists today, but perhaps it's needed next week. If the need for connectivity is short term, traditional approaches are expensive, time-consuming and sometimes impossible to justify. Think of an outdoor festival or a short-term COVID-19 testing site that will sit idle for potentially years after its immediate use.

In these cases, 5G as ISP or VPN backhaul for temporary settings is an easy use case. The model is simple: A 5G router or hotspot provides a foundational building block for a LAN or wireless LAN on the inside, while providing connectivity to the internet or back to the corporate network. Sometimes called pop-up networking, 5G enables an endless range of scenarios in this space with extreme convenience.

We're just getting started with understanding 5G's real-world practical value. The media is full of slanted tales of 5G's ultimate dominance, but this is hardly a narrative where one technology has to "win."

There will continue to be myriad personal and corporate use cases where Wi-Fi, wired Ethernet and 5G each prevail as the "best" for a given situation. Having flexibility is nice, for sure. But, as we've discussed here, 5G is becoming perhaps the most interesting option for a number of market niches.

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