When you get as many 5G-oriented press releases as I do, especially around the time of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, you’ll hear all sorts of claims, many dubious. Those claims are frequently absurd, often wrong and sometimes propose violations of the laws of physics. Mostly, though, they’re simply self-serving marketing blather.
Unfortunately, some of those claims have hit the media so often that people believe them. For example, now that 5G is arriving, we should expect instant access to vast stores of knowledge, no matter where we are. We should be doing augmented reality as we walk along every street. Many of these 5G advocates are involved with companies that stand to benefit at the hands of 5G, such as IoT communications vendors.
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For this reason it wasn’t a surprise when my editor, Chris Preimesberger, passed along an article in IEEE Spectrum claiming that WiFi was entering its long decline, where within the decade it would be replaced by 5G. The article quoted a couple of those 5G communications vendors who have a vested interest in seeing 5G come out on top.
The reality is that while 5G communications are at the cusp of global expansion, so is WiFi. The difference is that 5G is just getting started. In 10 years 5G will be commonplace, much like 4G cellular is now, and like 4G cellular, including LTE, it won’t yet be ubiquitous. There will still be vast regions where 5G is simply not there.
Vast Investment Needed for Full 5G Implementation
The reason why 5G, even in-office 5G that the article in Spectrum suggests, won’t be there is both because of engineering and because of economics. To make the really high-speed, low-latency signals everyone thinks is 5G actually work will require a truly vast investment in infrastructure. Those high speeds require millimeter wave radio signals, and those require cell sites that are very close together–much closer than cell towers need to be now.
Building those cell sites (many of them won’t be actual towers) is time consuming and expensive. In many locations local governments have placed significant restrictions on 5G facilities, and before construction can begin on a 5G site, those local restrictions must be overcome. Because those sites must be an order of magnitude (at least) more dense than cell sites today, it will take much longer to get past those restrictions.
This means that in 10 years, you may have areas of the U.S. without 5G for reasons ranging from public opposition to government policy to financing to geography. Eventually those problems will be overcome, but like restrictions on cell towers today, it could easily take much longer than a decade.
So what about WiFi? Like 5G, WiFi is also entering a new period of growth. In late October 2019, the Federal Communications Commission announced a notice of proposed rulemaking that would provide 1.2 gigaHertz of bandwidth in the 6 GHz band to unlicensed spectrum users. The proposal focuses on WiFi as a primary use of this vast range of radio spectrum. Notably, the proposal has strong bipartisan support, meaning that after the comment period it will likely pass.
Why WiFi Will Benefit Most from 5G
Some of this unlicensed spectrum will be used for LTE as wireless companies look for more ways to reach their users. Some of it will be used for specific 5G communications, but that will need to pass muster with the FCC which is opening up vast areas of the millimeter wave spectrum for 5G wireless users.
But it’s WiFi that will benefit the most. While most existing WiFi devices won’t be able to take advantage of the 6 GHz band, many existing designs will be able to handle at least some of it with minor modifications. Meanwhile, the huge installed base of WiFi devices is already there–something that can’t be said of 5G.
What will happen instead is that WiFi will continue to grow, and so will 5G. But because of the hurdles that face 5G, WiFi will serve to complement it in areas where 5G isn’t available, which will be mostly everywhere at first. Eventually, 5G will become widespread enough that it can be counted on to be available most places.
But it’s important to remember that 5G isn’t what you think it is, and that ubiquitous high-speed radio infrastructure still won’t be everywhere. A great deal of that 5G will be like the 600 and 800 MHz signals of T-Mobile and AT&T. Low latency, reasonably available, but not that high-speed connection you’re expecting. For that you’ll still need WiFi.
Both WiFi and 5G Will Be Utilized
Ultimately, you’ll have both services. The long-hyped millimeter wave 5G may take decades to reach everywhere in the US, just as there are still long gaps in coverage for 4G LTE now. Lower frequencies will deliver some 5G over longer ranges, but for higher speeds, you’ll need WiFi in buildings and some urban areas as you have now, but more so.
A decade from now, there will be far more access to WiFi than there is presently. What will change is that you’ll be able to move between WiFi and 5G as the circumstances require. It’s unlikely that either service will decline, just like 4G LTE won’t decline any time soon. At least not until 6G.
Then we’ll need to start a whole new round of hype.
Wayne Rash, a former editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.