Wi-Fi Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

By Drew Fitzgerald
Originally appearing in The Wall Street Journal, Issue 3/4/2019.

"New wireless technology boasts faster download speeds than early 5G."

Cellphone companies can’t quit Wi-Fi just yet, though not for lack of trying. Cheap and unburdened by regulations governing mobile-phone service, Wi-Fi networks have grown from a coffee-shop perk to near ubiquity. There will be more than 549 million global public and cable-company-run hot spots by 2022, contributing to a technology that accounts for more than half of all internet traffic, according to equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc.

At the same time, telecom executives say that fifth-generation cellular technology could drive more data and revenue onto their networks. One of 5G’s top selling points is its ability to more cheaply link swarms of machines to cellphone networks.

Ronan Dunne, head of Verizon Communications Inc.’s new consumer-focused unit, said many customers should be able to get rid of Wi-Fi at home once 5G is rolled out and new technologies spread its signal throughout homes.

“A lot of homes now, you switch off your Wi-Fi because your actual LTE signal is better,” he added, referring to the current generation of wireless networks.

Wireless hot-spot makers are working to fight that perception. Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group for device makers, recently introduced Wi-Fi 6 as the industry designation for the next Wi-Fi generation. The group said the new technology, also known as 802.11ax, will make the latest hot spots’ improvements in speed and reliability easier for consumers to recognize.

Wi-Fi 6 boasts faster peak download speeds – a maximum 9.6 gigabits per second is quick enough to download a high-definition movie in a few seconds and several times faster than what early 5G specifications will offer. But device makers stress that the upgrade’s biggest benefit will come from the way new hot spots juggle clusters of cellphones, laptops and smart home gadgets that use the network at once.

“Wi-Fi and cellular technologies have been and will continue to be strong complements to each other,” Alliance marketing executive Kevin Robinson said, but “Wi-Fi is going to be that workhorse. No other technology can deliver the affordable performance in the home.”

A completely cellular-connected world would also be years away because manufacturers would need to replace almost all the internet-connected machines on the market. A cellular chip adds to the cost of any piece of electronics from a $1,000 tablet to a low-cost Amazon Echo, and most internet-capable gadgets don’t have one. By contrast, there are more than 30 billion Wi-Fi-capable devices in the wild, according to Wi-Fi alliance.

In the middle are electronics makers like Cisco, Broadcom Inc. and Qualcomm Inc., which also supply cellphone carriers with electronics and software. No company is likely to declare an early winner in the tug of war between the dueling connection types.

“I think the jury’s still out,” Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s chief executive, said. Hot spots are so common, he added, that it makes sense to buy a device like a Wi-Fi-only computer tablet that isn’t likely to travel where a signal can’t be found.

Sarah Krouse contributed to this article.

    Shamima Paurobally