Wi-Fi is becoming more like cellular, giving 5G a run for its money

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Wi-Fi 6 and 5G share a number of features

5G, the latest generation of cellular technology, boasts potential speeds of up to 10 Gbps, a 100x increase over 4G LTE, significantly lower signal latency, as well as increased network capacity and bandwidth. These benefits, when combined, position 5G to go where no cellular technology has gone before: large venues, factory floors and any other space congested with mobile and IoT devices all trying to connect at once.

However, just as it was beginning to feel like it was 5G, 5G, 5G day and night, Wi-Fi technology got its own facelift with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6 in 2019, which hosts a number of shiny new features, thus, again reigniting the fight for the title of the best option for large-scale connectivity.

With recent updates, Wi-Fi has managed to remain in the spotlight even in a world buzzing with the excitement of 5G. When 802.11ac, or Wi-Fi 5 was released in 2014, it was the newest, fasted and most reliable version of Wi-Fi. However, 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, was certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance last year, and offers a ton of new features.

And a number of those features are also present in 5G.

“In general, Wi-Fi is becoming more cellular-like,” LitePoint’s Director of Product Marketing Adam Smith explained. “There are features that have been added to Wi-Fi that just flat out didn’t exist and were traditionally more cellular features. It’s changing the way Wi-Fi is being used, tested and validated.”

More specifically, just like 5G, Wi-Fi 6 has an improved version of Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) that lets devices respond to the wireless access point at the same time that involves multiple antennas, allowing the access point talk to multiple devices at once. With Wi-Fi 5, the access point could talk to devices at the same time, but those devices couldn’t respond at the same time.

Both technologies also make use of the channel access method Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which allows for the division of a wireless channel into a large number of sub-channels, with each one carrying data intended for a different device.

Another shared feature, 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM), enables throughput increases for Wi-Fi 6 by as much as 25% over Wi-Fi 5. In the case of 5G, this feature was part of 3GPP Release 15, and it allows 5G to achieve higher peak data rates and spectral efficiency in favorable scenarios.

Lastly, both technologies use beamforming for improved signal power, which results in significantly higher rates at a given range.

Even further, while cellular has always been superior when it comes to mobility, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has been hard at work developing Wi-Fi OpenRoaming, a roaming federation service that enables an automatic and secure Wi-Fi experience globally and creates an open connectivity framework for all organizations in the wireless ecosystem, making it more seamless for a user to transition from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another throughout a city.

According the WBA website, there are three key elements of OpenRoaming:

  • Cloud federation: creates a federation of networks and identity providers to enable automatic roaming and user onboarding on Wi-Fi. Based on WBA’s Wireless Roaming Intermediary eXchange (WRIX) standards to scale and facilitate different business models under a harmonized framework.
  • Cyber Security: enables simple, secure and scalable Wi-Fi connections amongst different organizations that are part of WBA OpenRoaming. Allowing automatic and secure roaming between millions of networks, nationally and globally with secured interconnection and encrypted communications.
  • Network automation: defines an automated roaming consortium codes framework (RCOI) to support policy provision on devices and networks. Organizations that manage a Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint-enabled network may become part of the WBA OpenRoaming federation.

With Wi-Fi and 5G advancing somewhat parallel to each other, many large venues are left wondering which technology will best serve the needs of their business and customers. While there is a lot to consider when making connectivity choices moving forward, one thing is clear: Wi-Fi and 5G will absolutely coexist and to get the most out of these two technologies, it is imperative to allow them to complement each other.

About Author

Catherine is a Technology Editor for RCR Wireless News, Enterprise IoT Insights, and In-Building Technology. Before joining Arden Media, she served as an Associate Editor in Advantage Business Marketing's Manufacturing and Research & Development Groups. She studied English and Film & Media Studies at The University of Rochester. She currently lives in Madison, WI. Having already lived on both coasts, she thought she’d give the middle a try. So far, she likes it very much.

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