As 5G emerges in the wireless market, the future of Wi-Fi is once again put into question by spectators who believe 5G is the ultimate service for both Internet and cellular connectivity. Yet, many overlook the clear developmental state of 5G that will inevitably run into capacity and coverage issues - leading to limitations as a result. This is the primary reason why Wi-Fi and 5G are more likely to complement rather than compete with one another in the near future.
Looking at 5G’s future
With its fast speeds and high coverage density, 5G promises to power several emerging technologies, such as sensors and autonomous cars, smart cities and their smart street lights, and even video cameras. However, just like any other emerging technology, 5G will require a growth period and is still limited in scale.
Currently, 5G is only operating in select cities, including Los Angeles, Austin, and Atlanta as well as in fixed-use cases within homes through offerings such as Verizon’s 5G home network. The fact that 5G is only in major cities within the United States impacts the availability of fast cellular service in the future. According to Cisco’s Global VNI Forecast, 5G will only account for 3 percent of wireless connections by 2022. Its scope is finite for the foreseeable future and will inevitably leave consumers relying on currently available broadband systems, such as Wi-Fi and 4G.
Wi-Fi’s competitive landscape
If 5G focuses on major cities first, Wi-Fi and 4G/LTE will continue to be the ideal choice for powering small, rural towns as consumers seek for fast internet speeds. The Wi-Fi market is expected to grow to $15.6 billion by 2022, with enterprise BYOD and IoT considered as major factors in driving the projection, along with the emergence of Wi-Fi’s newest generation, Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6 is touted as four times better in dense and congested environments, while being able to concurrently improve network efficiency. It also has the advantage of extending the battery life of devices as they work less when connecting to the network. Faster speeds allow for more devices on one router, which is important for a system that depends on many factors including the network to which the consumer is connecting, type of device, physical placement, and the number of connections at a given moment.
The reality of connectivity
New forms of connectivity, either through Wi-Fi or 5G, won’t replace existing systems overnight. Before we can enjoy the faster speeds and superior performance that 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will offer, carriers and ISPs must build robust networks capable of supporting new technologies and speeds. For 5G, carriers must create a robust infrastructure with more cell towers, small cells, and distributed antenna systems (DAS), which are all vital to producing ubiquitous networks. Similarly, ISPs must create new hardware for customers to reap the full benefits of Wi-Fi 6.
For consumers, billions of existing and anticipated 5G-compatible smartphones and Wi-Fi-only devices such as tablets, entertainment systems, and computer systems will not be going anywhere soon; the market will instead offer a gradual emergence of these technologies with new chips capable of wirelessly connecting to Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.
As far as Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G goes, it isn't likely that there will be a reigning champion accounting for all wireless connections. Both will be in widespread use, depending on multiple geographic and economic factors. New and older methods of connectivity will be required to achieve our ambitions of a seamless wireless future.