WiFi 6 will face 5G competition

The emergence of two new wireless standards will cause IT decision-makers to think carefully.
Written by Anthony Caruana, Contributor
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The networking business is becoming more and more complex. In the past, there were clear decisions to make when it came to choosing WAN, LAN, wireless, and cellular technology. But the imminent arrival of widespread 5G and WiFi 6 has changed the game significantly. With 5G having the capacity to deal with long-haul, consumer, and high-density applications depending on which slice of spectrum it uses, it could become a viable competitor to WiFi within industrial applications.

In Australia, Telstra is pushing 5G in cities with limited but expanding coverage, and Optus is focusing the initial stages of its rollout as an alternative to the NBN in offering fast wireless broadbanD.

It's inevitable that 5G will become ubiquitous in Australia. Telstra and Optus are already pushing 5G and Vodafone -- or TPG Telecom if the ACCC's bid to block the TPG/VHA merger fails -- would eventually have to come up with a plan or risk being left behind.

What about WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 is faster, can deal with greater device density and uses less energy than WiFi 5 -- as 802.11ac has been renamed. And if that sounds a lot like 5G, you're not wrong. But 5G, as a cellular data network, would be delivered by carriers rather than your network engineers.

Sitting behind the battle between WiFi 6 and 5G is an important point. As Erin Dunne, from the Vertical Systems Group said at recent event hosted by NetEvents in San Jose: "Networking used to be designed to connect sites. We're not there anymore as the traffic flow has changed that, impacted not only the design and the decisions, but certainly the implementations that enterprise customers make."

The reality is that networks are now about connecting more and more end-points -- that's where the battle lines will be drawn between the two types of networks.

Telstra's 5G plan will utilise three different slabs of spectrum. The recent announcement that the 3G network is set to shut down in 2024 is not just about decommissioning old tech. The 850MHz spectrum used by 3G can be repurposed for 5G to transmit data faster and over longer distances.

The 3.6GHz spectrum will be used by most of us when we connect our new laptops, tablets, and smartphones to 5G over the coming years, but Telstra plans to grab some of the 26GHz, or millimetre wave, spectrum when it becomes available. That would allow them to connect hundreds of devices in close proximity, fulfilling its desire to become the IoT network of choice.

Dave Bolan, a core industry analyst from the Dell'Oro Group, summarised the state of the 5G network in the United States by saying that each provider has spotty coverage. The reasons for their spotty coverage however, has been due to the differing deployment strategies used by Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

He also noted that 5G handsets aren't uniform in what radios they use to deliver 5G connections.

"Today you can get a Samsung phone with a Snapdragon X50 5G modem in it. You can see that it works in the millimetre-wave bands, it works in the low bands. It can only do time division duplexing, and it can only work with what's known as the nonstandalone mode,"he said.

"The next generation devices that will come next year will add frequency division duplexing. A person buying a 5G phone today, won't be able to work on the lower bands next year and in the 5G standalone that's coming".

Decisions, decisions

The decision about whether to put your faith in WiFi 6, or look to 5G for IoT applications, or other use-cases where there is a high density of connected devices isn't easy.

Both technologies offer faster connections than their predecessors along with the ability to support more concurrent devices. On the other hand, retro-fitting devices to support either of the new standards is a massive undertaking, and then there's question of which option is the best fit.

In a recent interview, Qualcomm's Rasmus Hellberg said: "We looked at all the Wi-Fi access points we have today, Then we added in millimetre wave at the exact same points. It's a big opportunity to drive millimetre wave indoors as a private network".

With the number of IoT devices forecast to increase rapidly over the next few years, businesses will need to consider how to link all of those devices to existing networks. WiFi 6 seems like a safe path for transitioning from existing WiFi 4 and WiFi 5 networks. But 5G could make tasks such as comms configurations easier. Once a SIM card is programmed correctly, simply installing it would allow for devices to connect almost instantly.

For now, it seems that the safer choice is to stick with what you have but keep a watchful eye on things. For most, that probably means sticking with WiFi and moving to WiFi 6. But as high-capacity and fast 5G networks become more available, 5G could become an option as the technology evolves and more hardware options become available.

Anthony Caruana attended the NetEvents Global IT Summit as a guest of NetEvents.

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