Marek’s Take: Rehashing the Wi-Fi vs. cellular debate

wi-fi cafe (pixabay)
The benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that it promises a better user experience because it can more efficiently manage bandwidth. (Pixabay)
Marek's take

As 5G markets begin to launch around the U.S., there’s been a lot of discussion about 5G’s limited coverage and penetration. 5G coverage likely will take a long time to penetrate indoors, where most consumers use their smartphones.

It's no surprise then that Wi-Fi advocates are using this as an opportunity to talk about the advantages of Wi-Fi for indoor coverage. They seem to be particularly vocal now that Wi-Fi 6, the new 802.11 standard, is just around the corner.

“For the foreseeable future, 5G is not a revolution,” says Claus Hetting, chairman and CEO of WiFi Now, a Wi-Fi advocacy group. Hetting adds that he believes what is currently being called 5G in the U.S. is nothing more than a 4G upgrade. "It's a moderate improvement on speed and latency."

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Hetting acknowledges that speed and latency are important elements to 5G, but he doesn’t think that faster speeds and lower latency alone justifies all the money operators are investing in 5G technology. Particularly when Wi-Fi is a viable solution for many of the popular 5G use cases. For example, Hetting says Wi-Fi is probably the preferred network technology for industrial Internet of Things (IoT) because enterprises know Wi-Fi already. “Most enterprises are geared toward the Wi-Fi world today,” Hetting says, noting that the Wi-Fi industry also has a huge ecosystem for products targeted to the enterprise. 

If Hetting's dismissal of 5G sounds like a déjà vu moment, that's because it is. I remember having the same Wi-Fi vs. cellular debate in the 3G era. The two industries finally agreed that the two technologies were compatible, not competitive, and moved on. But now debate seems to be rearing its head again.

That's not all. Hetting also scoffs at the wireless industry's belief that once 5G networks are up-and-running, new and novel use cases for the technology will develop that no one has thought of before. "The invention of the iPhone created the mobile broadband market that we know today," he says. "But the chance of that another iPhone moment happening are very small." 

Do consumers want faster speeds?

Another argument against 5G networks is that faster network speeds and low latency are not necessarily things users really care that much about. According to William Webb, a U.K. based consultant and author of a book called “The 5G Myth,” what consumers really want is consistent connectivity regardless of whether they are in a building, on a train, in the middle of a major city, or in suburbs. “When I ask audiences if they want 10x faster data rates or if they want consistent connectivity that is good everywhere, they always say they want consistent connectivity,” Webb says. “I’m convinced this is a much more desired thing than just high speed.”

Consistent connectivity can be attained without 5G, Webb adds. He suggests operators just add more 4G LTE coverage combined with Wi-Fi 6 for indoor coverage. Wi-Fi 6 routers are expected to be on the market soon and the latest devices, such as Apple’s new iPhones, support Wi-Fi 6.

The benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that it promises a better user experience because it can more efficiently manage bandwidth. By using an approach called orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), Wi-Fi 6 routers are able to serve multiple clients at once using a single channel. Wi-Fi 6 also uses a technology called quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM. Basically, this means that an access point with QAM can better modulate the Wi-Fi signal. “Wi-Fi 6 will solve a lot of problems,” Webb said. “This will materially improve the whole user experience.”

Wi-Fi disrupter

Perhaps the answer isn’t pitting one technology against the other (as we learned back in the 3G era) but for operators to effectively offer both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 in a way that guarantees a consistent user experience and coverage regardless of whether the customers are indoors or mobile, urban or rural.

Webb said what Google has done with its Google Fi mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) is one example how operators can offer a combination of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 coverage. Google Fi’s handsets are designed to give users the best signal regardless of whether it’s on the cellular or Wi-Fi network. Google Fi shifts between three LTE networks and millions of Wi-Fi hotspots. 

Google could continue its disruptive path and strike 5G MVNO deals with operators but Webb thinks Google's more likely to let others do this because wireless isn't its core business. But cable operators are in a good position to try this type of tactic. Comcast and Charter Communications already offer wireless services as MVNOs using Verizon's 4G LTE network. And both companies have millions of Wi-Fi hotspots. 

If the vision for the future is one where everything from automobiles to traffic lights to refrigerators is connected, then Wi-Fi and cellular must not only coexist but also work together in a seamless manner. Let's finally stop pitting these technologies against one another.