It has only been a couple of years since the hype-cycle ramped up on 5G with this message: 5G is the key to enabling smart cities, autonomous vehicles, able to support massive density, huge bandwidth improvements, and provides the lowest possible latency. As a matter of fact, 5G is faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Ok, I might be exaggerating in that last sentence. Some carriers have even gone so far as promising 5G would replace the need for enterprise Wi-Fi; I will put that to rest later. Bottom-line, the marketing hype for 5G is that it is the end-all solution, able to resolve all your wireless concerns. But if this is true, why are discussions already shifting towards the next cellular iteration, 6G? Now don’t get me wrong, I am actually a big fan of the goals, direction, and capabilities of 5G. The technology offers tremendous advantages to support growing demands and use cases. But for the most part, many of the promises of 5G are not generally available and will be additive to most existing networks, not a replacement.
As you can see from the timeline below, the development of 5G has been a long, deliberate process that will continue into 6G, 7G, and beyond.
The reality of 5G is, it is not so much a tangible thing as it is a direction of the technology. No vendor, carrier, or even a consultant can really say it is ready today to displace other wireless technologies, maybe someday but not yet. Just take a look at what has been defined, starting with the ITUs IMT-2020 paper and continuing through multiple stages and technology evolutions. Looking at the timeline above, you can see the process is almost a decade old and will continue. This timeline is similar to Wi-Fi, and just because Wi-Fi 6 is the latest version, it does not mean all the earlier versions of Wi-Fi have been eliminated. In fact, 802.11n and 802.11ac are still the most predominant technologies in use today due to the enormous installed base (~14 billion devices). Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is making headway, Wi-Fi 6E is on the horizon, and Wi-Fi 7 just a little further out. If a new technology comes to market, it does not mean legacy and existing technologies will quickly disappear. As history has shown repeatedly, all networking technologies, wireless, wired, applications, etc., will continue to evolve.
This brings me back to my view of 5G in 2021: I believe carriers and consultants will finally move past the hype and come back to reality. 5G will take its place as the next evolution of licensed technology and not as an all-encompassing technology to replace other wireless solutions. 5G, LTE, P-LTE, CBRS, Wi-Fi, BLE, and even the evolving ultra-wideband (UWB) will have a seat at the table supporting multiple wireless use cases. As I have said for many years, there is no single ‘right-way’ to design a network, but there are lots of wrong ways. Hopefully, individual CIOs will do their diligence and try to make the best decisions about which wireless technologies to deploy, whether that be a single technology or multiple technologies to address specific needs, deployment requirements, and budgets. If designed correctly to support their particular requirements, these networks will be ‘right’ for them, no matter what some other paper says. The only wrong design would be to base network design decisions on technology promises that may never be delivered and would require tremendous resources.
And to the topic of 5G replacing Wi-Fi: It is never going to happen… period. When advocates for 5G discuss the possibility of replacing Wi-Fi, the focus is always on the technology speeds and feeds. What they neglect to consider are all the existing devices, the cost of replacement, and common sense. At best, 5G will only augment existing Wi-Fi networks. Let’s use common sense for just a minute; in a typical enterprise network, imagine the number of existing Wi-Fi devices (tablets, laptops, printers, projectors, hand scanners, and IoT sensors). Few if any administrators will be willing to undertake the effort, the complexity, and the cost of converting perfectly functional devices to migrate to 5G. At best, 5G technology will serve as an overlay to the existing Wi-Fi network, supporting a subset of the total number of wireless devices in the enterprise.