Revisiting Wireless Internet Connectivity: 5G vs Wi-Fi 6

Edward Oughton

Assistant Professor of Data Analytics

George Mason University, VA, USA

Almost in synchrony we are seeing the roll-out of the next generation of wireless technologies for both cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. While there has been much excitement around the world regarding the fifth generation of cellular technology known as ‘5G’, there is comparable enthusiasm for the next version of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11 Wireless Local Access Network (WLAN) standard, ‘Wi-Fi 6’. Recent evaluation has comparatively assessed the two different technologies in order to produce insight on how wireless Internet connectivity may evolve over the next decade (Oughton et al., 2021).

Will 5G ‘kill-off’ Wi-Fi? This is one of the main questions which motivated recent assessments, given the ongoing debate in industry on this topic. Ultimately, the competition between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technologies offers important benefits by enabling greater flexibility for users to mix-and-match the technologies, business models, and spectrum usage models that best fit their needs. Proponents of one or the other technology, however, may argue for the benefits of their chosen technology displacing the other, and may argue for regulatory policies that would serve to tilt the marketplace in their favour. Such efforts need to be resisted, as both technologies have important roles to play in the marketplace, based on the needs of different use cases. This is particularly important given that apart from smartphones, some devices will remain Wi-Fi-only, while some cellular-only, with just a fraction actively using both technologies to steer traffic based on user preference. Additionally, cost economics and convenience of deployment will play a major role. 

Given the path dependence exhibited by sunk costs in legacy infrastructure, it is unlikely that either technology will be able to usurp the other due to the additional costs of transitioning, except in a few specific circumstances. For example, cellular will remain the dominant wide-area technology thanks to the sunk investments made in existing brownfield infrastructure (towers, backhaul fibre etc.) which can be reused to provide generational upgrades at a lower cost than new greenfield deployments. Equally, it is hard to see how Wi-Fi would be threatened by 5G cellular for indoor locations, particularly for homes, given the ongoing challenges cellular technologies have with trying to serve inbuilding users with a high degree of reliability. If wireless devices do not require mobility or high Quality of Service, it is hard to find a justification for using 5G given it is generally more expensive, particularly for consumer electronics. Certainly, cost economics will be a major factor which affects the design of wireless devices, as well as consumer behaviour, and Wi-Fi has the advantage in this area, even if cellular is moving towards unlimited data subscriptions. 

References

Oughton, E.J., Lehr, W., Katsaros, K., Selinis, I., Bubley, D., Kusuma, J., 2021. Revisiting Wireless Internet Connectivity: 5G vs Wi-Fi 6. Telecommunications Policy 45, 102127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.telpol.2021.102127

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Edward Oughton received the M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Clare College, at the University of Cambridge, U.K., in 2010 and 2015, respectively. He later held research positions at both Cambridge and Oxford. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the College of Science at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA, developing open-source research software to analyze digital infrastructure deployment strategies. He received the Pacific Telecommunication Council Young Scholars Award in 2019, Best Paper Award 2019 from the Society of Risk Analysis, the TPRC48 Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award 2021 and was runner-up in the Lloyd’s of London Science of Risk Prize 2021.

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