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.

Wifi 6 White Papers

Cisco and Wi-Fi Alliance White Papers on WI-FI 6 (IEEE 802.11 ax)

Wi-Fi® is the world’s most popular wireless technology, supporting more users and devices, and carrying more traffic than all other wireless technologies. Today, nearly all mobile devices and most indoor environments have Wi-Fi connectivity. The adoption of Wi-Fi is quickly expanding to innovative electronic devices, Internet of Things (IoT), augmented and virtual reality, smart cities and vehicles.

Two white papers have recently been published by Cisco and Wi-Fi Alliance on Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11 ax standard) being the future of connectivity. Both papers expand on the key benefits of Wi-Fi 6:

  • Higher data rates
  • Increase in overall network capacity
  • Improved performance in dense and congested environments
  • Improved power efficiency
  • Unlicensed spectrum operation
  • Ease of use
  • Backward compatibility with traditional access points and 802.11 a/n/ac

The Cisco white paper provides a technology overview of Wi-Fi 6, its feature set, and explains why Wi-Fi 6 is fast, robust, and deterministic through improved resource allocation and device scheduling mechanisms. The paper also presents the first Wi-Fi 6 performance test results:

  • Wi-Fi 6 outperforms Wi-Fi5 with more than a 60% increase in range in low data rates, reaching past 250 feet from the AP.
  • In Wi-Fi 6, the relative throughput will be 2-3 times higher with four or more devices connected to an AP in the uplink direction. In the downlink direction, there is a 10% to 40% increase in throughput.

The Wi-Fi Alliance less technical white paper explores the broad range of next generation connectivity scenarios. The paper describes advanced use cases supported by Wi-Fi 6 such as augmented reality, virtual reality, Ultra high-definition video, Internet of Things, multiparty gaming and other immersive scenarios. The paper expands on Wi-Fi 6 key inherent strengths: reliability, security, interoperability whilst delivering greater capacity, faster speeds and lower latency. These strengths will allow Wi-Fi 6 to address many important and next generation use cases. The paper also describes Wi-Fi’s complementary role with 5G, and explains the economic and societal benefits of Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi Alliance says Wi-Fi 6 will be complimentary to 5G and will carry the bulk of the world’s data traffic as 5G is deployed. Finally, the paper discusses significant spectrum efficiency gains of Wi-Fi 6 and its ability to share spectrum with other technologies in unlicensed bands.

The two papers can be found here:

CISCO white paper: IEEE 802.11ax: The Sixth Generation of WI-FI

Wi-Fi Alliance White paper: Next generation Wi-Fi: The future of connectivity

Further reading:

Cisco & Wi-Fi Alliance White Papers: The future of connectivity is here
by Claus Hetting, December 29, 2018

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