From Co-existence to Convergence, the Union of 5G & Wi-Fi

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As we know, 5G is the new broadband telecommunications cellular standard that promises to super-charge the global connectivity quotient. At the same time, we must also think about the emergence of Wi-Fi 6, which is the next evolution of the Wi-Fi 802.11 standard.

While 5G is variously detailed as being some 10 to 20 times faster than 4G, Wi-Fi 6 takes connectivity speeds from 3.5 Gbps (gigabits per second) on Wi-Fi 5 to 9.6 Gbps. So in short, everything is getting faster.

However, some questions arise about whether or not we will actually get these speeds and, if so, whether we can make productive use of them.

While it’s possible we won’t get, or need, all the speed and performance promised from 5G and Wi-Fi 6 any time soon, the groundwork and architecture being laid down now will certainly help push us toward newer and better technology innovations in the years ahead.

Although, that does still leave the question of how 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will work together and what potential trade-offs or points of tension may arise between them.

Also read: The Impact of Wi-Fi 6 on Digital Transformation

Use Cases

Wi-Fi (and, ultimately Wi-Fi 6) and 5G will now need each other more than ever to support consumer and business applications ranging from augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to Industry 4.0 factory automation.

One example is providing reliable coverage indoors for bandwidth-intensive applications such as 4K video. That’s challenging for 5G, which is using a new high-band spectrum, such as millimeter wave, to provide the speeds users expect from 5G.

Working alongside 5G, Wi-Fi 6/6E provides more capacity than all the other Wi-Fi bands put together and delivers connections with speeds equivalent to the new advanced 5G mobile, which allows it to support low-latency levels required for mobile gaming, VR and AR applications, and Industry 4.0 solutions.

The Movement to Converge 5G and Wi-Fi 6

Currently, tech innovators are pushing 5G and Wi-Fi 6 usages from a point of co-existence to that of intelligently integrated convergence. According to Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), only a team effort combining cellular and Wi-Fi can deliver the reliable, high-quality, ubiquitous wireless experiences consumers and enterprises want.

“Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technologies are critical for the evolution of connectivity and the digitalization of the planet as a whole,” said Rodrigues. “While the focus for cellular is on wide-range coverage, … the focus for Wi-Fi is more prevalently on indoor coverage and high bandwidth connectivity.”

He further clarifies that there are a few use cases relevant for mobile operators to take advantage of Wi-Fi, such as offloading data from the cellular network when and where there is insufficient capacity; where there is limited cell coverage, mainly indoors; and in some cases, even outdoors where cellular signals are poor. 

Also read: Using Wi-Fi 6 and 5G to Build Advanced Wireless Networks

Constant Connectivity Capabilities and Potential

The other pertinent point here is that many devices today, such as tablets, laptops, cameras, etc., are Wi-Fi only and work in ways that depend upon Wi-Fi as the only wireless connectivity option.

“We realize that what the customer really cares about is being connected to the best-performing network at any given time, on whatever device they are using,” said Rodrigues. “Added to this factor, we need to remember that prudent organizations realize they need to pay the right price for the right connectivity technology at the right time.

“Sometimes, it will be Wi-Fi, sometimes it will be 5G, and sometimes it will be both. This becomes a harmonious reality with 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E.”

The Wireless Broadband Alliance’s central position is clear—the continued development of 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E networks unlocks further potential for Industry 4.0, residential connectivity, connected smart cities, and more. But, convergence is critical for all parties if users and organizations are to truly capitalize on the potential this technology has to offer.

Although, it is becoming clearer that Wi-Fi 6/6E and 5G is a win-win scenario for end users, cellular specialists, and Wi-Fi players.

“5G and Wi-Fi 6 have made enhancements to each technology that actually bring them much closer together, in terms of the services each technology can support, and 5G network cores are expected to support multiple access technologies and apply similar policy and security regimes,” said Rodrigues. “To realize the future opportunities, WBA members are addressing some interesting areas that will help support future convergence of 5G and Wi-Fi networks.”

The Path to Convergence

The WBA’s release of the 5G and Wi-Fi 6 Convergence report was developed with input from mobile carriers, Wi-Fi providers, telecommunications equipment manufacturers, and the WBA’s 5G Working Group. The report provides a breakdown of the current standards and key business opportunities for operators.

Figuring out the best path to convergence is important because businesses and operators stand to gain many benefits from the seamless integration of Wi-Fi and cellular access in 5G networks in areas such as enterprise Wi-Fi, smart cities, and the home.

The WBA works with the standards bodies such as 3GPP, Wi-Fi Alliance, GSMA, and IEEE to understand relevant challenges and address them.

Looking ahead, we can expect developments to surface in areas such as WBA OpenRoaming. The creation of the OpenRoaming cloud federation and development of a global industry standard for Wi-Fi roaming has been supported by more than 60 WBA members.

With WBA OpenRoaming, devices and users will connect to Wi-Fi networks seamlessly, securely, and privately while receiving a cellular-style experience.

The big reveal is that connectivity in general is getting a fairly substantial transformation, if not a complete overhaul in many senses.

The way we, as an industry, enterprise organizations, and users, now help to dovetail these technologies for the greater good could impact how successful they are in the medium- to long-term deployment curve, reconnecting how we connect.

Read next: Best 5G Network Providers for Business 2022

Adrian Bridgwater
Adrian Bridgwater
Adrian Bridgwater is a technology journalist with three decades of press experience. Primarily he works as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but, in a fluid media world, he is also an analyst, technology evangelist, and content consultant. As the previously narrow discipline of programming now extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, his own editorial purview has also broadened. He has spent much of the last 10 years also focusing on open source, data analytics and intelligence, cloud computing, mobile devices, and data management.

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