With less than three weeks to go before the big Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show in Barcelona, Spain, there’s a lot of attention being paid to wireless technologies, particularly 5G. The next generation cellular network is expected to make a particularly big splash this year, as the first devices that incorporate the technology are expected to be on display. In addition, many are expecting to see a rash of telecom infrastructure equipment suppliers unveiling the latest components necessary to power 5G networks, telecom carriers announcing their pricing and planned rollouts of 5G services, and just about everyone else trying to make some kind of connection between what they’re offering and the new network standard.
But 5G won’t be the only wireless technology making some important debuts in Barcelona. At long last, we should also see the first client devices that incorporate the latest version of WiFi: 802.11ax, more recently dubbed WiFi 6. According to FCC documents discovered by the DroidLife website, for example, it appears Samsung’s next generation Galaxy smartphones, predicted to be announced at their upcoming pre-MWC event, will include support for the faster new WiFi standard. In addition, there are rumors of many more WiFi 6-equipped smartphones and other gadgets being introduced at this year’s MWC. Many of these new devices are expected to be powered by the recently unveiled Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, which includes built-in support for WiFi 6.
Interestingly, even though 5G and WiFi 6 are different technologies, there are a surprising number of similarities between them, at many different levels. In fact, there’s enough of them that some have wondered if one of the wireless network standards might eventually subsume or replace the other.
First, at a high level, each of the new standards contains a wireless data connection protocol that builds on previous generations and is specifically designed to increase the density of wireless networks. One of the biggest problems limiting the performance of both cellular broadband and local area wireless networks is clogged airwaves—too many people and too many devices trying to leverage a limited amount of space. It’s a classic data traffic jam.
As a result, both 5G (and many of the enhancements introduced with gigabit LTE—which AT&T is misleadingly labeling 5Ge) and WiFi 6 are using some of the same basic technical principles to help alleviate the congestion. Though there are differences in implementation between 5G and WiFi 6, both are using technologies like enhanced Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO), OFDMA, advanced QAM, and beam-forming to make more efficient use of the defined radio spectrums for each technology. Taken together, these enhancements should help each technology reach theoretical peak transfer rates in the high single digit gigabits per second range as well.
Just to add to the complexity, there are also a number of efforts, such as LAA (License Assisted Access) and MulteFire, which are designed to allow cellular radio signals to travel over the same, unlicensed 5GHz radio spectrum used by WiFi. Concerns have been raised that this combination of cellular and WiFi could lead to interference with WiFi operation, however. In addition, telco carriers, who exclusively license the radio spectrum they use for broadband cellular connections, have voiced concerns about losing access to what could become “private” LTE or even 5G networks.
Despite these issues, a number of wireless vendors, including Qualcomm and Intel, have discussed the potential opportunity for companies to build these kinds of private cellular networks—in essence, replacing WiFi with 5G or LTE. Though this would require all devices connecting to the network to have an integrated cellular modem—no small feat right now—the idea is that this could improve coverage across a campus environment or in a factory, and wouldn’t require any type of log-in process that you typically need with WiFi.
At the same time, some similar benefits of integrated LTE (and eventually 5G) in PCs and other devices is also starting to take hold. The ease of having a single network connection that doesn’t have to be changed or be remembered or be logged into (if you even can) no matter where you are becomes much more appealing the more you get used to the concept. Throw in the critical fact that cellular connections are considered more secure than WiFi, and you can understand why you should expect to see a lot more devices with integrated cellular broadband over the next few years.
Of course, as appealing as a single network may sound, there are still a number of critical issues that exist. First, telco carriers still have a long way to go to make this a financially attractive and realistically practical option. Yes, the “add a device for $10 more a month” model does exist for most people, but it’s not consistently available, a number of limitations often apply, and it’s still not easy to manage multiple devices on a single account. This is particularly true for companies that have thousands of employees, each of whom could easily have 4-5 different connected devices.
In addition, there are a number of attractive, lower-cost and relatively easy alternatives. Right now, WiFi signals are nearly as ubiquitous as cellular connections, and in most cases, they’re free, which is always tough to compete with. Plus, some of the enhancements for WiFi 6 will likely fix the frustrations that people often have with WiFi in dense environments (and which typically trigger the switch to a cellular broadband connection—such as at a trade show, etc.). On top of that, tethering a WiFi enabled device to a cellularly connected one is getting much easier, particularly now that Google just announced that the automatic tethering features of some ChromeOS devices are coming to most all Chromebooks and a wide range of popular Android-based smartphones.
Ultimately, 5G and WiFi 6 aren’t really competitive technologies, but complementary ones—at least for now. In fact, it will probably be difficult to find a new 5G device that doesn’t also support WiFi 6—the two technologies can work hand in hand. For most people, 5G will handle the wide-area wireless connection, and WiFi 6 will handle the local wireless connection. Eventually, however, there could certainly come a time when only one of them will be necessary.
It may seem crazy to think that WiFi could go away, especially given how pervasive it is today. But if you fully take into account the advances that 5G is expected to bring—not least of which is a huge number of small cells that can be used indoors and other places where WiFi has typically reigned—the idea may not be as far-fetched as it first appears.