Ofcom's Mansoor Hanif seems like the kind of person who stands among home fans at soccer matches and tells them why the other side is so much better. Or one who arrives late at a party and then belly flops on the cake.
His tardy arrival at this week's Wireless Global Congress can probably be excused. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which represents the WiFi industry and organizes the event, decided to host it near Heathrow Airport. Not close to the terminal exits, mind, but about two miles away, in a part of London frequented only by men in hardhats, wheeling trolleys around, and people who have missed their flights. It is an eerily deserted place to be on Halloween.
Perhaps less forgivable, from the WBA perspective, was Hanif's behavior when he arrived. Wasting no further time, the chief technology officer of the UK telecom regulator got straight to the point of telling attendees why cellular trumps WiFi and slamming the WBA's latest report on the wonders of 802.11 whatever.
WiFi is a bit naff for all sorts of reasons when you compare it with cellular, and particularly 5G, according to Hanif. For starters, even though 5G has not yet proven itself, it is going to be an elephant of a technology, he said (photographic evidence is provided below).
Not a white elephant, that is, but an elephant in the metaphorical sense of a huge and powerful thing with loads of moving parts (this analogy conveniently overlooks the lumbering, covered-in-shit qualities of your typical elephant). 5G is an entire framework, basically. "Can WiFi be more than just a piece of that jigsaw?" asked Hanif knowingly. Or more than one bit of a dismembered elephant, he might have said. (See Piecing Together the 5G Big Picture.)
Even its reliance on unlicensed spectrum no longer distinguishes WiFi, Hanif argued, now that we have Terragraph (an unproven technology developed by the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project), CBRS (a chunk of shared licensed and unlicensed US spectrum unproven in commercial mobile networks) and 5G New Radio on unlicensed spectrum (still nowhere to be seen). (See Terragraph: A WiMax in Facebook Clothing? and Cable, Mobile Prepping for CBRS – Analyst.)
Hanif was asleep at lunchtime on Halloween six years ago, he told his audience, and not following nightmares that BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) would buy EE, his employer at the time. No, the man had just exhausted himself launching the UK's first 4G network. And look at 4G's ubiquity today -- unless you are traveling by rail or in some Godforsaken urban wasteland near Heathrow, that is. 5G will probably launch next September in the UK, said Hanif. If it copies 4G, it could be nearly everywhere by 2025. That gives WiFi about seven years to shape up or clear off. (See BT Locks Down £12.5B EE Takeover Deal.)
OK, so Hanif didn't quite put it that way. But the implication was (sort of) there. The 5G elephant is on a stampede and WiFi is like some unfortunate other creature of the wireless jungle that is about to get mauled beyond recognition. "My feeling is they haven't accelerated," said Hanif. "They were faster but now they are stagnating a bit and 'ax' is taking a bit too long to get out there."
For the benefit of the uninitiated, that "ax" refers to the latest 802.11ax standard, or WiFi 6, to those who like it simple. It's vulnerable, according to Hanif, because 5G, with its network slicing appeal, will have a much bigger impact in the home and the enterprise -- traditional stamping grounds for WiFi -- than 4G has ever managed. (See Arris Gets a Fix on WiFi 6 and 802.11ax Rebranded as 'Wi-Fi 6' .)
"It was true that owners of venues wanted WiFi and didn't always like to work with operators, but that is eroding," said Hanif. "There is a danger that [cellular] dominance moves from outdoor to indoor and encroaches on WiFi strengths."
Hanif basically thinks WiFi will struggle to meet the diversity of in-building requirements a business might have in a cost-effective way. Thanks to network slicing, a cellular operator should (in theory) be able to run different types of "virtualized" network service over the same infrastructure to address all these customer needs. Operators and managed service providers (including the likes of Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)) are likely to pursue this market aggressively as a rare opportunity for cellular sales growth (upgrading 4G smartphone customers to 5G services probably won't do much for revenues). (See 5G Still More Like Rocket Fuel Than a Mission to Mars.)
WiFi doesn't vanish, in this scenario. But it does lose out. "[Cellular] might just be interworking with WiFi to manage legacy and then WiFi is just a dumb pipe," said Hanif. The convergence of underlying technologies might also accelerate its demise, as vendors come up with "system on a chip" designs to support both WiFi and cellular connectivity. "That is an area not addressed in your white paper," Hanif told the WBA.
Criticize a football club this way and you would risk a clobbering. Hanif's audience was not visibly riled, though. Even the gentleman wearing sea-life socks -- bright red crabs and yellow starfish against a turquoise background (you know who you are) -- just listened attentively. You might expect more from such an outrageous dresser.
But the WiFi industry seems to be in confident spirits. "The WBA believes that the prominence of the next generation of WiFi technology, WiFi 6, will not be affected by 5G," says the WBA in a press release accompanying its latest report. With about 9 billion WiFi devices now in global circulation, the WBA can probably afford to be sanguine.
And operators themselves are far less religious about the whole issue. After all, if WiFi were not there to share the load, traffic congestion on mobile data networks would be a much bigger problem. Indeed, for many service providers, the real concern is not whether 5G beats WiFi, but ensuring the two can play together nicely.
"When users are switching to free WiFi, you lose the link between the operator and the customer," says Cedric Gonin, a senior marketing director for international mobile services at Orange. The Passpoint system that Gonin has helped develop is partly about maintaining this link in a seamless fashion. Orange (NYSE: FTE) is currently working with airlines to ensure Passpoint is available in planes offering WiFi connectivity to passengers.
So WiFi versus 5G seems likelier to be a friendly contest than a fight to the death -- a soccer match where the players can still shake hands and exchange shirts when the final whistle blows. Provided Hanif isn't there stirring things up.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading