Can We Stop Comparing 5G with Wi-Fi 6?

Marcus Burton Architect, Cloud Technology Published 19 Oct 2021

The wireless industry has recently been comparing Wi-Fi with cellular, which is perfectly reasonable. They are categorically similar technologies, even if the primary use cases are different. Nonetheless, the comparison helps us discern and articulate these differences. But comparing 5G with Wi-Fi 6 is altogether different—it is a bit like comparing an entire season of a TV show with a single episode of another. They are apples and oranges if you don’t mind the cliché. Take a quick moment to watch the video below for a visual timeline comparison of 5G versus Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi has always released and adopted new standards in 3-5 year increments. And typically, there are two phases of feature adoption (often called wave1 and wave2) for each standard. Cellular has a similar incremental process, known as 3GPP releases, which define both new and iterative batches of cellular technology.

The problem is that cellular marketing gurus then package together a series of 3GPP releases (like Releases 15-19) and label them collectively as 5G. The numerous generations of Wi-Fi releases are never lumped together, such as if the Wi-Fi Alliance were to take Wi-Fi 6, 6E, 7, and 8 and package them together into a decade-long raft of wireless progress. If we’re going to make the comparison at all, we should compare Wi-Fi 6 with something like 3GPP Release 15.

In some ways, the bundling effect in cellular makes sense. Cellular requires longer deployment cycles, higher costs, and more complex equipment installations and integrations. It all takes more time and thus makes sense to plan and iterate in 10-year cycles. Conversely, Wi-Fi lifecycles are shorter and more agile, equipment is more distributed, and especially in home networks, the devices are standalone and independent, so there are fewer incumbrances to regular upgrade cycles.

But we do a disservice to Wi-Fi 6 when we compare it to 5G. We see this all the time in the rosy picture story-telling of 5G as the driving force for futuristic inventions, like autonomous vehicles or ubiquitous virtual reality. These technologies are at least three or more years away, but 5G marketing still rides them hard. 5G advocates make these claims because 5G is a 10-year technology, and it will still be around when these inventions are finally real. Perhaps more precisely, 5G will be the primary cellular technology for 10 years, then it carries on for another 15 years thereafter. A lot can change in 10-20 years. I might even retire before 5G rollouts retire, and I’m only 40.

Conversely, Wi-Fi takes the steady pace of incremental change. It is Aesop’s Tortoise. That’s not necessarily bad, but the effect of incremental change is underestimation. Bill Gates famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.” We’re never really told or shown, or just hyped into believing, how Wi-Fi will be central to our lives from 2025 and 2030, so our imaginations don’t fill in the blank. We just go on underestimating the ways that Wi-Fi will keep changing our world over the next decade. Nonetheless, Wi-Fi will carry on as a central figure in the connectivity landscape, just without the glossy sheen of marketing slicks and executive overstatements.

What’s really crazy to me is that I see vastly more news headlines about 6G than Wi-Fi 7, which is just ridiculous. 6G cellular rollouts will not happen until 2030, whereas Wi-Fi 7 is only a couple of years away. It just goes to show, we are comparing the wrong things, and as a result, coming up with the wrong conclusions about 5G versus Wi-Fi 6.

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