A large and growing number of operators and vendors are moving forward with WiFi 6 devices and services, noting that the newly released WiFi 6 standard supports faster speeds and more capabilities.
Further, those in the industry are increasingly arguing that WiFi will sit alongside 5G and other wireless technologies in a "converged" world of the future.
"Boingo strongly believes in convergence," said Derek Peterson, the company's CTO. "You're going to need all the technologies."
Peterson's comments coincide with Boingo's announcement this week that it installed some WiFi 6 access points in John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. The company said the effort is part of a commercial trial to test next-generation WiFi capabilities, and will leverage new Samsung Galaxy S10 phones that support WiFi 6.
Boingo isn't alone. Operators including Charter Communications and vendors including Cisco Systems have been talking up the potential of WiFi 6 and how it might run alongside other wireless technologies like 5G.
"Charter recently became the first U.S.-based WiFi provider to announce the introduction of the latest WiFi technology -- 802.11ax or 'Wi-Fi 6' -- through its next generation Spectrum WiFi router," Charter wrote in a recent filing with the FCC. "In comparison to previous Wi-Fi standards, this latest technology is a game changer. WiFi 6 will increase speeds, improve coverage, expand the amount of devices that can run simultaneously, boost Charter’s already robust video streaming capabilities, and provide better battery life. Looking ahead, Charter plans to integrate its advanced WiFi network with a variety of next generation wireless access technologies, including 5G and other licensed services, in order to create a cost-effective and seamless connectivity experience for its customers."
"WiFi 6 and 5G are made to work together," Cisco's Chuck Robbins said at the recent Mobile World Congress trade show. (Such comments aren't necessarily a surprise given Cisco's extensive WiFi business, which extends from enterprise network construction to router sales, as well as its 5G efforts.)
Similarly, earlier this year the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) -- a group of operators and vendors working to include WiFi technologies in the cellular industry -- jointly with the NGMN Association, which is focused on 5G, released a report identifying use cases that benefit from the convergence of 5G and WiFi. The two groups added that the 3GPP's Release 15 provides some support for interworking between 5G and WiFi, and the group's Release 16 is expected to include additional WiFi options, including support for trusted WiFi and WiFi traffic steering, switching and splitting.
"Convergence of 5G and WiFi can potentially bring major benefits to cellular operators, enterprise WiFi and public WiFi solution providers, giving access to 5G and enterprise services from both WiFi and 5G access networks," Peter Meissner, CEO of the NGMN Alliance, said in a release.
Of course, WiFi already plays a major role in the transmission of most data from LTE smartphones. According to usage figures last year from Strategy Analytics for Android phone owners, roughly three-fourths of all traffic from US smartphones is transmitted over WiFi networks. The remaining one-fourth travels over cellular networks.
5G providers playing on both sides
Actions among US 5G operators sit on both sides of the issue. For example, AT&T recently inked a major WiFi offloading agreement with Boingo. But AT&T, Verizon and other operators are also deploying LTE services into the unlicensed spectrum bands in a move that was initially widely opposed by WiFi proponents.
Boingo's Peterson said that the company has been deploying 5G technologies for almost a year now. But he said that Boingo still sees a future where WiFi will sit alongside 5G and LTE in CBRS spectrum and potentially other technologies as well. "We don't see it as a one versus the other," he said.
Indeed, Peterson said that Boingo's customers -- which include airports, stadiums, military bases and other large venues -- are increasingly looking beyond the technologies and now are talking about use cases.
In the past, "it was always about, 'give me WiFi or give me cellular coverage.' It wasn't about, 'what is my digital world and how does my digital world tie into my physical world, and how do they come together to create a space that inspires people?'" he said.
Now, though, Peterson said things are different. "It's changing," he said of Boingo's conversations with its customers. "It's no longer a discussion about bits and bytes. It's a discussion of their digital vision of their venue. And how does connectivity and what possible connectivity we can bring to these different experiences that they want to create."
Of course, such discussions often get down to brass tacks too. "Cost is a very big factor," he added. "WiFi is still very cheap compared with cellular."
Although the WiFi industry has been rallying around the newly released WiFi 6 standard, some in the industry warned that WiFi proponents shouldn't sit still.
"In industrial use-cases, Wi-Fi faces significant challenges," wrote Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis in a recent post. "The industry needs to market itself more loudly, more globally, and to a wider audience. It needs to create more space for innovators and developers, with collaboration forums and easier access to documents -- and a willingness to extend the brand's goodwill, even to those that aren't doing something fully-standardised."
But Bubley agreed that WiFi and 5G will likely sit alongside each other in a variety of scenarios. "I see many reasons to integrate 4G, 5G and WiFi in various guises, both at a network level and service level. We will see MNOs that have big WiFi footprints. We'll see 5G FWA with WiFi indoors. We see dual-connected home broadband gateways with both fibre and cellular modems. We have offload, onload, WiFi first MVNOs, Wi-Fi calling and and non-3GPP access to 4G and 5G core networks. This trend will continue."