The Wi-Fi industry recently received a major boost from the FCC, which voted to release an enormous amount of new spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed operations. The action – coupled with the recent release of the new Wi-Fi 6 technology standard – could position Wi-Fi to carve out some of the revenue opportunities currently targeted by the 5G industry.
Specifically, executives in the Wi-Fi industry have named roaming, fixed wireless, telehealth, VR, precision manufacturing, private networks and smart cities as areas for expansion – all areas that have also been bandied about as 5G opportunities.
But, to be clear, the lines in this discussion are decidedly blurry.
"It's tempting to think of cellular connectivity and particularly 5G as a rival to Wi-Fi. But it's not so simple in reality, as the two are being designed to complement each other," writes CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber.
And it's certainly true that each of these growth areas has its own unique characteristics. For example, there's little doubt that most VR applications will use Wi-Fi indoors but will need a 5G connection to work around town. Similarly, Wi-Fi has long been used by enterprises of all shapes and sizes for private wireless networking – and there's no reason to expect that to change – but Wi-Fi simply can't cover the kinds of enormous geographic areas that some 4G and 5G proponents are eyeing.
Further, some companies stand to benefit from both technologies, albeit in their own ways. Cisco, for example, sells both Wi-Fi access points and 5G core network software. Similarly, Intel sells chips for 5G basestations alongside chips for laptops that are virtually useless without Wi-Fi.
But there are plenty of other companies – replete with thousands of employees – that have a very vested interest in the debate over Wi-Fi and 5G. Qualcomm, for example, has been very vocal in its support for the FCC's 6GHz ruling, but a huge chunk of the company's business is tied up in 5G. And Nokia and Ericsson won't sell much 5G equipment for a telehealth service that uses Wi-Fi.
That's why there's a quiet but heated battle between the two technologies going on in a handful of select verticals. In fixed wireless, for instance, providers may decide to opt for cheaper Wi-Fi equipment in the 6GHz band rather than ponying up for official 5G equipment from the likes of Ericsson or Nokia. Already there are examples of fixed wireless providers – Starry and Common Networks, for example – that have selected 802.11-based kit for just that reason.
Similarly, giant manufacturing conglomerates may decide to simply upgrade the existing Wi-Fi networks in their factories to the new and more capable Wi-Fi 6 technology standard rather than deploying a whole new 5G network. Although some manufacturing firms like ABB are testing 5G, others like Mettis Aerospace have already opted for Wi-Fi 6.
And building owners may decide to forego a fancy new 5G network for indoor coverage, thanks to the Wi-Fi OpenRoaming standard. That specification, developed by Cisco but now handled by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, seamlessly connects Wi-Fi devices to pre-approved networks – just like 3G and 4G cellular networks do when customers are roaming. The companies that are designing, building, selling and installing indoor 5G equipment may not be happy about this kind of development.
Indeed, the Wi-Fi advocacy organization WifiForward recently commissioned a study that found cellular operators could save up to $13.6 billion between 2020 and 2025 by offloading their 5G traffic onto Wi-Fi networks. Meaning, they won't spend that money with 5G equipment suppliers.
No wonder Ericsson proposed last year that the FCC set aside the upper portion of the 6GHz band for licensed uses, such as 5G.
All that said, the story isn't over yet. Via the 3GPP standards group, the 5G industry is putting the final touches on a version of the technology specifically tailored for operations in unlicensed spectrum – unlicensed spectrum like 6GHz.