When people talk about wireless technologies, they tend to think about broadband cellular wireless networks like 5G and WiFi, which offers local area wireless connections. The truth is that most people do not really know (nor do they care) much about the differences between how each technology works. They just want to know if they have reception that allows them to connect to a network and that they can get to the information, content, or services that they want.
If you are the type of person who’s reading a column like this, however, you probably do have at least a passing interest in how the technologies powering these different types of networks are related. Those questions are particularly relevant now, thanks to the latest additions to the WiFi standard, WiFi6 and WiFi6E. Several of the underlying technologies powering these new networks are very similar to, or in some cases even the same as, ones used for 5G networks.
Signal modulation techniques like OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access) and transmission technologies like beamforming and MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output), for example, are a key part of both WiFi 6/6E and 5G.
But first, a quick reminder. Like all cellular technologies, 5G is based on the use of licensed radio frequency spectrum (for more details on what spectrum is and how it works, see “The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices.”) What this means is that companies that want to use these networks—that is, telco carriers—have to purchase the exclusive right to broadcast signals over certain radio frequencies.
Those signals are broadcast from cell towers at high power levels and can travel for long distances, often measured in miles. In order to connect to those networks, any device you use needs to have a SIM card (or eSIM) that confirms you have a valid account on a particular cellular network, and you have to pay to get access to that network.
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All WiFi networks, on the other hand, use what’s called unlicensed or shared spectrum, meaning anyone has the right to create products that broadcast and receive signals on those frequencies. In addition, access to these networks (in most cases) is free, and devices don’t require anything like a SIM card to connect to them, just a radio capable of sending and receiving signals at certain frequencies.
For WiFi, the frequencies that are used are 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Importantly, these frequencies are available for use globally, meaning you can use the same WiFi device and chips that power a WiFi connection anywhere in the world. Finally, the signals on WiFi networks are sent at lower power rates, which means they don’t travel as far—typically within the walls of your house, a section of your office, etc.
For a long time, the technologies behind cellular networks and WiFi networks were fairly different. Over the last few years, however, as the latest generations of these technologies were developed, there has been a great deal of technology crossover between them. The reason? Some of the same challenges facing WiFi networks have also been issues in cellular networks.
Specifically, both of these network types have been facing problems with congestion, where more devices and faster connection are creating digital “traffic jams” that end up slowing down network response for everyone. As a result, both new WiFi networks have integrated similar capabilities and core technologies that are designed to battle these and other concerns, such as reducing latency or lag time.
To be perfectly clear, these similar technology additions do not mean that the two network types are merging (at least for now): they are and will continue to be fundamentally different animals because of the technology and business model differences described above. They are similar, however, in that you need to have new devices and new network equipment (or new routers in the case of WiFi) in order to take advantage of these networks.
In other words, you only get the benefits of 5G if you have a 5G-capable smartphone or other device connecting to a 5G network and the benefits of WiFi 6 (also sometimes referred to as 802.11ax) if you have a WiFi 6-enabled device connecting to a WiFi 6-certified router. Thankfully, many newer devices, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S20 phones and more, support both new network types in a single device.
The WiFi6 standard was officially ratified in September of 2019, and chips that support the standard from companies like Qualcomm, Intel, Broadcom, Marvell, MediaTek and others have been shipping for over a year. In addition to OFDMA, MU-MIMO and beamforming, some other key technology additions to WiFi6 include Target Wake Time, which can improve battery performance in mobile devices by signaling when radios can be turned on and off, support for wider frequency channels of transmission, and something called spatial frequency reuse, which lets more devices peacefully co-exist on different channels on the same network or across neighboring networks.
The other interesting new connection between WiFi 6, or more specifically, WiFi 6E, and 5G is the availability of new spectrum, or open airwaves, that can be used to transmit more data on each of these networks. In the case of WiFi 6, just last week the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the addition of a huge 1.2 GHz (1,200 MHz) wide band of spectrum for unlicensed WiFi use in the US—the first addition of new frequencies for WiFi in over 20 years. (As a point of reference, the unlicensed frequencies available for WiFi at 2.4 GHz are only 70 MHz wide, while there is 500 MHz available at 5 GHz.)
Specifically, the FCC enabled the use of frequencies from 5.9 to 7.1 GHz for unlicensed WiFi use, and devices that can support those new frequencies can be labelled with the brand new WiFi 6E standard (a name created by the WiFi Alliance industry consortium). The catch is that, right now, those frequencies are only available as unlicensed spectrum in the US, and it could take (although hopefully won’t) several years for other countries to make the same move.
Thankfully, the US is a large enough and influential enough market that chip makers have already started to produce the components that include support for 6E, but don’t count on WiFi 6E being a global standard for some time. Still, we should start to see WiFi 6E-capable routers and other devices here in the US by the end of this year.
The full story on WiFi 6E naming needs a bit of additional clarification. Despite the 6 in the name, “normal” WiFi 6 devices cannot connect to or take advantage of the new 6GHz frequencies. Only WiFi 6E devices can use those new frequencies. The good news is, new 6E-capable devices and routers will likely use that new set of frequencies exclusively, freeing up the older, lower frequency bands to be used solely by older devices.
That doesn’t really matter right now, of course, but eventually that will make a big difference in improving overall WiFi speeds, reducing WiFi network congestion and reducing network response time (i.e., improvements in latency). WiFi mesh routing systems, in particular, are likely to be the earliest benefactors of the new 6 GHz spectrum. Both WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E devices and routers can take advantage of all the new technologies described above.
The key difference is that WiFi 6E-equipped components can use them both on existing 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies as well as the new 6 GHz frequencies, whereas “normal” WiFi 6 devices can only use those technologies at the older 2.4 and 5 GHz bands.
Despite all the improvements and potential around 6 GHz frequency spectrum, it is important to point out that signals sent at those frequencies are subject to the same physical laws as any other radio frequency transmissions. Specifically, the higher the frequency, the less distance a given signal travels at the same power transmission levels, and the more difficulty it has in passing through thick objects like cement walls.
Practically speaking, that means 2.4 GHz WiFi signals can travel the furthest, but the ability to use channels up to 160 MHz wide (which is one of the benefits of WiFi 6) and the addition of up to 7 different 160 MHz channels, or 14 new 80 MHz channels (which is what the new 6 GHz frequencies enabled by WiFi 6E bring to the table), should still translate to significantly faster real-world performance with 6GHz WiFi 6E.
In fact, the performance improvements with WiFi 6E could be so good in some situations—think large public venues like sports stadiums, concert halls, and potentially even some corporate campuses—some people believe it could be a competitive threat to 5G. Of course, conversely, there are some who would argue that the growing potential interest in creating private 5G networks could supersede the need for WiFi 6 or 6E. For 5G, the argument is primarily around security, because the need to have a SIM-authorized device to connect to a cellular network is inherently more secure than WiFi networks’ more open approach.
Of course, there are security standards for WiFi as well, so the argument isn’t really quite that simple. Another potentially interesting future dilemma is that there has been some work and discussion around using the newly released unlicensed 6 GHz spectrum as extensions to 5G networks, but nothing definitive has come to pass. Regardless, it’s clear that in some situations or certain physical environments, we could start to see 5G and WiFi 6E as more competitive technologies than the two have ever been.
Ultimately, however, because of the huge legacy base of both WiFi and cellular-enabled devices, the much more likely outcome is that both types of networks will exist for some time to come. Eventually, because of the increasing similarity of the underlying technologies, we could even start to see them come closer together, but there are a huge number of business model-related issues that would have to be figured out first. In the meantime, thanks to some surprisingly quick additions to the frequency spectrums of both 5G (see “CBRS Vs. C-Band: Making Sense Of Mid-Band 5G” and “Spectrum-Sharing Technologies Like CBRS Key To More Robust Wireless Networks” for more) and WiFi here in the US, the good news is that we’re about to have a faster, broader, and more robust set of connectivity options here than we’ve ever seen before.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.
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