One thing 5G champions did not need was a competitor. Yet, of late, it seems that there is a whole lot of activity going on in the Wi-Fi camp.
There have been bits and bytes, from time to time, about just that topic – questions about how 5G and Wi-Fi will exist in this brave new world of wireless. The discussion that next-generation Wi-Fi was likely to challenge some of the 5G use cases is not new. In fact, I have discussed that in previous missives as well.
When I say that Wi-Fi may become a competitor to 5G, of course that does not mean competition for 5G as the next global wireless platform. What I mean is that Wi-Fi is maturing to the point where it can offer impressive performance for a number of segments that have traditionally been the domain of licensed wireless.
Up to now Wi-Fi has not been seen as a serious competitor to both existing licensed and emerging 5G wireless services. And, with good reason. Current generation Wi-Fi just does not have the credentials needed for reliable, high performance, bulletproof networks. Its security is not great. Its bandwidth degrades significantly with loading and its performance is not stellar. But that was never its intent.
It has been very useful and appropriate for many non-commercial-grade applications (no, Starbucks hotspots do not count as commercial). In spite of its shortcomings, it has become the de facto unlicensed network platform. And it is free – that is a big plus.
However, that may be changing. The Wi-Fi camp has not been sitting idly by. The latest iteration, 6 and 6E (IEEE 802.11ax) have upped to ante. And it has the potential to up-end licensed wireless in some of its commercial space. And when Wi-Fi 7 inks, that will up the game even more.
Wi-Fi 6, especially E, has the potential to offer some competition to 5G in the unlicensed space. Many enterprise users can do well with a faster, more secure, better performing, FREE, controlled network. I.e., no reliance on commercial network operators.
Wi-Fi also has a lower cost to deploy, maintain, and scale – especially where access points need to serve more users. It also offers a wider footprint for device interconnect. Wi-Fi can support a myriad of data-hungry devices, such as PCs, tablets, smartphones, wearables, streaming devices, smart TVs, printers, smart speakers, security cameras, thermostats, appliances, and more.
As well, there is the Internet of Anything/Everything (IoX). However, exactly what roles both 5G and Wi-Fi will play in it is still somewhat unclear.
Until now, the gap between licensed and unlicensed has been huge. In fact, there was no contest. Licensed wireless has always been better suited for longer-range higher density use cases such as smartphones, connected cars, smart “x”, and large-scale industrial use cases. But it was the only option, in most cases, so lesser demand networks had to go with it. But the emerging Wi-Fi 6 and 7 have the capability to move into that space where wireless, especially 5G, is overkill, and Wi-Fi was underkill.
Security – Wi-Fi takes it on
One of the monumental changes in these upcoming Wi-Fi generations has to do with security. That was a big buzz-kill for commercial applications, even if the platform would work in other ways. However, Wi-Fi 6 and 7 have taken on security with a vengeance.
Before Wi-Fi 6 the ownness on security rested with the user. However, Wi-Fi 6 features major security enhancements that have eliminated many of the weaknesses of earlier iterations. Wi-Fi 6 applies enhanced encryption, transparently, where it is needed. This means visitors, hotspot providers and facility managers no longer have to worry about who is on the network as they did with previous iterations.
Additionally, industry standards such as Passpoint  that enable secure, seamless roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks making Wi-Fi 6 much more secure. But will that sway then enterprise? And will that be more attractive than private 5G networks? The jury is still out.
Add to that the soon to be available Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) and things will get dicey. Wi-Fi 7 can mount a respectable challenge to 5G’s performance in many cases, although things are pretty quiet around this concept so far (and, Wi-Fi 7 is a couple of years out).
Wi-Fi 7 offers specification such as 46 Gbps, or better, data bandwidth, a 4096 QAM modulation scheme, up to 320 MHz channel width, coordinated multiuser (CMU)-MIMO (meaning that all the antennas need not necessarily be on a single access point – spatial resolution), and multiple access points (vs Wi-Fi 6’s single access point). It also offers better latency, spectrum efficiency, power management and interference mitigation.
Both Wi-Fi 6 and 7 use WPA 3, which ditches the nearly 20-year-old WPA 2 standards (WPA 2 will still be available for compatibility reasons). WPA 3, among its other features, implements a simultaneous authentication of equals handshake (also called the Dragonfly handshake). WPA3 is resistant to dictionary attacks and also supports forward secrecy, meaning that any traffic that came across your transom before an outsider gained access will remain encrypted.
All of this means that Wi-Fi 7 could be a serious contender to 5G in places. Eespecially if really low latency numbers can be attained.
There are vendors and organizations already looking at Wi-Fi as a player. Qualcomm has released a series of chips that consolidate 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and mmWave support (varies by device). They are initially targeting the IoX space, but it is reasonable to assume, with such broad-spectrum support, other verticals are on the horizon.
5G has been stepping up its private network game plan of late. The 5G players have realized that consumer 5G is not going to be the RoI driver they were counting on in the early days, at least not for a while. Therefore, they are moving on to other verticals, private networks being a very visible one, which is also being eyed by the Wi-Fi camp..
Gazing into my crystal ball does not offer any clear insight into how this will, eventually, shake out. Of course, in the long run, both of these will coexist, side by side. That is a fairly common consensus – what exactly that will look like is not.
There are certainly applications and verticals that will require 5G. but the more robust Wi-Fi (and other unlicensed platforms) become, the more opportunity it (and they) will have to steal market share from pay to play 5G.
In today’s extremely competitive wireless landscape, traditional conventions are shifting. New connectivity models and platforms are constantly evolving. Wi-Fi has not been a particularly robust platform. But that does not mean it will remain demure, going forward.
Ernest Worthman is an executive editor with AGL Media Group.