5G and Wi-Fi 6: Can They Ever Work Together?

The last 20 years have seen the case for cellular and Wi-Fi convergence grow stronger says Chris Spencer, GlobalReach Technology.

A former colleague of mine posed this rhetorical question more than 10 years ago at an early Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) conference in London.

Can the structured, controlled and systematic world of mobile operators marry with the somewhat anarchic, innovative and unpredictable world of Wi-Fi? Or will they be forever disparate, discrete and dislocated? Will the cellular purists and the Wi-Fi separatists ever see eye to eye?

I recently presented at the HTNG (Hospitality Technology Next Generation) Europe Conference in Monte Carlo; the question remains. Monaco is a place that’s hit the headlines recently for deploying a comprehensive 5G network but, with no disrespect to the principality intended, it is not the largest landmass to cover everywhere. 

This coverage question is a topic I addressed in my session “5G is Here Today, but How Can it be EVERYWHERE?” followed by a panel moderated by Dayna Kully, 5th Gen Wireless and with Yvette Vincent, Delaware North.

The hype might have us believe that ubiquitous 5G connectivity is here, but for enterprises like hotels, retailers and transport providers who are addressing the challenges and costs of offering wireless internet indoors, should 5G try and be everywhere, when it is possible, more practical and more cost-effective to co-exist with Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure?

There were historic reasons why the two wireless technologies (and cultures) were distinct. Wi-Fi has been called a ‘polite’ technology that grew up in a crowded space of unlicensed spectrum. Wi-Fi devices expect to be in a crowded space and listen to see if other devices are already using the radio band. Cellular, by contrast, has assumed that it ‘owned’ the band that it had licensed and so had no need to give way. It has had a carte blanch to broadcast, filling up fast as more connected devices – and the revolutionary iPhone – hit the market and consumer demand grew.

Popular opinion from the cellular camp was that with each new device launch was that 3G (and subsequently 4G and 5G), would see the end of Wi-Fi. But this has not transpired. Interestingly, Apple first introduced the groundbreaking iPhone as a ‘Wi-Fi only’ device. Meanwhile, mobile operators who negotiated initial country distribution exclusivity for a 3G and Wi-Fi variant saw a huge uptake in the new smartphone sales and a tremendous upsurge in cellular data usage which then began the first attempts at rudimentary 3G offload. I note that again Apple has not been to be first to market with a 5G handset but that the new 11 Pro and Pro Max support Wi-Fi 6.

Today, huge investments are being made in 5G and the hype has seeped through to politicians and the general public. If all stated ambitions are to be believed billions could be spent on 5G networks globally. And yes, 5G certainly has the potential to be truly transformational in certain circumstances – but so has Wi-Fi 6. The fact is that not one cellular generation so far has dampened Wi-Fi’s fire. Quite the reverse.

Every new G has been good for Wi-Fi

As Keerti Melkote, President, Intelligent Edge and Founder, Aruba Networks said, ‘Every G has been good to Wi-Fi  sales of Wi-Fi devices have accelerated with each cellular network technology revision and as time has shown, the deep gulf between the two has been bridged increasingly as visionaries from both sides converge in both their underlying thinking, their technologies, and cultures. Indeed, developers from both sides have pinched some of each other’s clothes.

Cellular, originally an architecture designed for voice-based services has now become more data-centric and Wi-Fi, a small cell data technology which 15 years ago was a best-efforts service, has become more carrier-grade. As cellular has progressed through its generations, so has Wi-Fi.

Small cells mean more cells

Radiophysics generally dictates that the smaller cell the higher data speeds can be supported. So achieving the 5G promise will require a substantial if not exponential increase in cell numbers. This will mean an expensive search for sites, along with the associated challenges and costs of site acquisition. Let alone the equipment and backhaul costs.

Why the continued discord?

Like so much in the world, education and misunderstanding are a problem.

Despite technical advancement, ten years after my colleague posed the question, one of the largest European operators at the WBA Wireless Global Congress last month compared Wi-Fi as it was (802.11ac) with 5G New Radio as it will be. The comparison was a puzzle to the Wi-Fi delegates listening, just like comparing Wi-Fi 6 (which is available and being deployed today) with 2G. Another impossible red herring.

Among the standards bodies, the battle for unlicensed spectrum also rages. Cellular and Wi-Fi equipment vendors and standards organisations cannot agree on the best use of the 6 Ghz band, which offers increased capacity for both. We are close to a point beyond reason, where views are so entrenched and based on IP protection rather than what the operator market might adopt or what’s best for the consumer.

Let’s reframe the conversation

From the users’ point of view, they do not care which technology or which bearer carries their data session, just so long as the cost and user experience meet expectations. Our own experience at Global Reach is that the more enlightened operators don’t care either. Here’s why:

WBA illustration of WiFi 6 attributes

Source: WBA 5G Workgroup 2019. 

Let’s reframe the conversation and make a sensible side-by-side comparison between the current generation of Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6) and cellular (5G). When it’s apples versus apples, the spider diagram shows how Wi-Fi 6 devices that conform to the IEEE target designs will outperform the 3GPP target designs for 5G New Radio in terms of lower latency, higher user data rates, and traffic capacity, and equally efficient in terms of spectrum use and connection density.

Yes, cellular outperforms Wi-Fi on mobility and network efficiency, but today’s Wi-Fi 6 is already shipping and is a step change on previous generations of Wi-Fi. The transformational use cases for AI, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality, digital transformation and business process improvement seem as equally suited to Wi-Fi connectivity as 5G, especially indoors and with low mobility requirements. The concept of edge computing for mobile networks to enable such applications dependent on low latency was originally termed mobile edge computing. This has now been refined to multi-access edge computing, acknowledging the RAN (Radio Access Network) edge may be Wi-Fi or other radio technologies, and not just cellular.

The Mercantile Hotel
Mercantile New Orleans uses GlobalReach Hotspot 2.0 WiFi

The more open-minded and enlightened mobile operators are building networks where Wi-Fi co-exists with 5G New Radio as part of a heterogeneous RAN to smooth average equipment and deployment costs, and to provide the best technology to suit the particular use case and target cost point.

Operators have for many years used Wi-Fi for better coverage in dense urban areas and for seamless offload paired with Passpoint to deliver a seamless and secure experience without user intervention. Indeed Global Reach first deployed this in an outdoor network in San Francisco and San Jose, California in 2014 and more recently in New York City, offloading terabytes of data daily. And where the backhaul is sufficient for the demand, consumers are receiving a better mobile data experience as a result and in most cases, they neither know nor care what technology is being used.

Link NYC kiosk with TBs of data being consumed over Wi-Fi rather than cellular networks, without user intervention or any breaks in service.

This isn’t a 5G versus Wi-Fi 6 numbers debate, it’s taking the best from both to enhance the user’s experience and operator’s capability.

Money too tight to mention

In basic Capex (Capital Expenditure) terms, not considering Wi-Fi as part of a next-generation network could hurt mobile operators’ profits.

Marc Allera, CEO of EE, the UK’s biggest mobile operator, publicly stated in the summer of 2019 that despite the clear improvements of 5G over 4G, consumers will not have to pay more for 5G.

Also in the UK, Mark Evans, CEO Telefonica UK seems to agree. When he launched the O2 5G data plans in October 2019 with a fanfare, the key message was that there would be no premium pricing over their 4G service.

Moreover, experts from the semiconductor industry tell me that 5G chipsets (and the embedded IP) are considerably more expensive than Wi-Fi 6 in terms of basic equipment costs. This added to the difficulties of indoor radio propagation through walls and glass that 5G faces when operating in higher bands, deployment costs seem to be challenging. Then small cells mean more cells and that costs, with the added task of finding and acquiring new sites and provisioning suitable high-speed backhaul.

So, if all the operators deploy 5G and this becomes ‘table stakes’ to compete, and all things being equal, market shares may stay broadly where they are today, then why wouldn’t CFOs challenge the Capex and Opex (Operating Expenditure) costs of a pure 5G network rollout and looks for more cost-effective solutions?

At a time when the next generation of networks will require a significant Capex investment but with no extra end-user revenue forecast, margins may be dependent on operators trying to minimise costs by using a hybrid network platform. 5G network slicing techniques and Wi-Fi policy management make this smart management possible.

Admittedly through a technique that Ericsson calls Dynamic Spectrum Sharing it has found a neat way to upgrade an existing 4G LTE network with 5G capability as a software drop, thus avoiding a slow and costly ‘truck roll’. The trouble is that will only upgrade the same existing sites and 5G is likely to need many many more. So it’s a good start but it does not solve the outdoor contiguous coverage challenge, let alone tackle indoor coverage.

Meanwhile, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), with its ecosystem of Wi-Fi and cellular operators and the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, which represents mobile network operators has already produced findings on how 5G New Radio and Wi-Fi 6 might work together in a converged platform to optimise the user experience and manage the cost of deploying a new network infrastructure.

In the words of the Wireless Broadband Alliance in its latest whitepaper, Wi-Fi 6 Deployment Guidelines and Scenarios, “While this investment may pay dividends in five (or more) years, with the launch of Wi-Fi 6 in 2019, Wi-Fi is already evolving to meet the growing demand for wireless data.”

Cellular operators and enterprises (such as in hospitality) have the opportunity to take advantage of this convergence now and deliver the best-connected service to their customers and adopt a pragmatic approach to capital spending. Convergence abolished much of what had kept the cellular and Wi-Fi worlds apart. When providing the best customer experience, effective resource management and capital expense control is riding on choosing the right connectivity technologies, it’s time to kick down what remains of the paper walls and embrace Wi-Fi 6 and 5G hybrid networks.

Perhaps 2020 is the year that new age Cellular Romans and Wi-Fi Gauls can finally work together with the operators and their customers in mind.