Why You'll Still Need Wifi When 5G Is Everywhere, According to the Wi-Fi Alliance

By David Nield on at

Good news for fans of getting stuff fast—all of us, then—because a new version of wifi is just around the corner. Wi-Fi 6 is going to be better than current wifi in every regard, and the body behind it just published a paper extolling its virtues, emphasising that, yes, we will still need good old wifi internet connections even after 5G arrives.

As with 5G, there are two main improvements coming with Wi-Fi 6: Faster speeds (so your downloads zip along more quickly) and greater bandwidth (so more devices can get online at once). But isn’t 5G going to negate the need for wifi? Won’t its arrival have our home routers dolefully gathering dust in the corner? Well, not quite.

While the Wi-Fi Alliance does of course have a vested interest in the tech its whole existence is based around, the Future of Connectivity paper it’s put out does make some valid points about Wi-Fi 6, 5G, and how all these wireless standards are going to live together happily in 2019 and beyond.

For a more detailed look at Wi-Fi 6 in particular, we’ve already done a full guide you can refer to—here we’ll see how it stacks up against 5G.

Wifi is already everywhere

Photo: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)

Everything connects to wifi... well, almost. It’s one of the most ubiquitous and standardised protocols in the world of tech. You don’t need to check your phone is using the same wifi as the local coffee shop, or your neighbour's house, or the foreign bar you frequent on holiday—it all just works.

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, more than half the world’s data is carried by wifi; in Germany, for example, 87 per cent of smartphone data is transferred via wifi.

As Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax) arrives, upgrades to both devices and routers are going to be needed, but everything is going to be backwards compatible—your old phone will still connect to a Wi-Fi 6 router, and your Wi-FI 6 phone will still connect to your old router, you just won’t get the fastest speeds or the other perks.

In this sense it’s like 5G: New kit is going to be needed to get the best performance, but old kit will still work as it always has. Buying a phone with 5G or Wi-Fi 6 capabilities isn’t suddenly going to lock you out of 4G or Wi-Fi 5 networks.

Where wifi might have the edge is in the ease of deployment, as the Wi-Fi Alliance is keen to point out in its new paper: Individuals, businesses, and venues can upgrade their wifi themselves, at a not exorbitant cost, without waiting for big changes to the back-end infrastructure, assuming there’s a fast enough broadband speed coming in. Depending on where you live, you might be able to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 at home before operators have even thought about offering you 5G.

The flip side is that you can connect to cellular towers almost everywhere. Even with the increasing spread of public wifi networks, you can’t connect to wifi as frequently as you can your cell phone network.

More devices: smart homes and connected cars

Image: Waymo

One way we’re being promised that 5G will change the connected future is by keeping more devices online in more places for more of the time—think the security camera in your living room or the self-driving car roving around your nearest city.

Wifi has an answer here too, with Wi-Fi 6 and an associated technology called Wi-Fi HaLow (or more technically, 802.11ah). Working at frequency bands below 1GHz (as opposed to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz of your main router), Wi-Fi HaLow trades speed for range and power consumption—it’s perfect for all those smart home devices that need a bit of occasional connectivity but don’t have to be streaming all the time.

Because it doesn’t demand too much of a device’s battery, it can work with wearables and remote sensors around the home as well. The new Wi-Fi Alliance paper is keen to push Wi-Fi HaLow as an alternative to 5G in some situations: “Wi-Fi HaLow enables a variety of new power-efficient use cases in the smart home, connected car, and digital healthcare, as well as industrial, retail, agriculture, and smart city environments,” it reads.

Super high speeds for AR, VR, and 4K

Image: Netflix

5G is promising super-fast speeds—up to to 10 gigabits per second—but wifi is aiming to keep pace here too, though a technology known as WiGig. The upcoming WiGig upgrade, technically known as 60Ghz or 802.11ay, is going to match those speeds, and like Wi-Fi HaLow it might be a better option than 5G in some cases.

The trade-off is that the range will be much shorter than standard Wi-Fi 6: You’re going to need a wired connection into the room you want to use it in, basically. But with that taken care of, it should enable blazing fast, low latency streams for 4K video, augmented reality and virtual reality experiences, and more.

This is the sort of upgrade you might invest in for your home cinema room, or that an events venue might set up to make sure everyone can get online at once. It’s not going to stretch very far outside of one room, but you’re going to get excellent connection speeds when you’re hooked up.

Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G

Image: Huawei

When it comes to Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G, it’s not really an either or situation—they’re both likely to end up being widely used in the years to come. As is the case now, the cellular tech will probably continue to be more frequently used in the outdoors at a large scale, while wifi will probably still be of most use indoors.

All of this history is still to be written. Both the Wi-Fi 6 and the 5G hype machines are now in full operation. The standards are in place but operators and manufacturers still need to work through the process of upgrading hardware—and while that process should be easier than it’s been for previous tech of this type, it’s still too early to be able to say exactly how it’s going to pan out.

That extends to 5G working with wifi and vice versa too. While some efforts have been made to get current wifi standards integrated with 3G/4G, it’s been a slow process, and it’s unlikely to be a priority for the industry as the next-gen tech rolls out either.

One final advantage the Wi-Fi Alliance is keen to push for Wi-Fi 6 is the way it can take advantage of unlicensed spectrum—those radio wave frequencies not currently assigned a specific purpose or requiring regulatory approval to operate in.

The need for 5G operators to apply for, pay for, and register chunks of the spectrum also gives wifi the edge across the world, where anyone (with a broadband connection) can set up their own wifi network for whatever purpose and using whatever tech they like.

Featured photo: Misha Feshchak (Unsplash)