World Wi-Fi Day 2020 is upon us. You will hear all the traditional accolades across the spectrum from the techie, with Wi-Fi becoming a primary off-ramp for 5G, to the not-so-techie about how it has enabled our access to 1000s of cute cat videos on YouTube. But its value is actually a whole lot simpler. Wi-Fi has become so important in our daily lives that it is almost forgotten as a technology and has become just an assumed basic service. Forever (ok, maybe just the last 10 years) the industry has preached Wi-Fi as a utility, like lights and water. Now it’s finally there. Wherever you work, learn or play Wi-Fi is already present, and if it isn’t, you’re probably not going back. In hotels, Wi-Fi is more important than a complimentary breakfast or free parking, so it is just expected.
You know it wasn’t that far back when I was amazed and delighted to exchange real-time emails with a coworker while we were both in flight on different aircraft. How the times have changed. Now it’s so standard that many airlines leverage it to provide the media for their inflight entertainment system, with the assumption that everyone is carrying a Wi-Fi device. This same concept also applies to how we adjusted to the #NewNormal. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many businesses and schools were forced to quickly change their business, delivery, and service models. The end result being, just do it from home. You already have Wi-Fi, a default of almost any residence. Now you close your laptop or tablet one day at your desk and you open it up the next day in your living room and you are back up and running. Yeah, I know it wasn’t that simple and there were hurdles to overcome, but Wi-Fi, the main ingredient required, was already sitting there waiting for you. In fact, it worked so well, many will never go back to the traditional desk, office, classroom or clinic. This would not have been possible without WI-FI and the foundation we have been building for decades.
But there are threats to this wonderful Wi-Fi infrastructure we have created. One of them represented by the carriers. They want to provide you their connection. They want your data, and let’s be honest, they want your money, via subscription to connect to their network, their 5G network. Everywhere you turn you are inundated with the message that it is only a matter of time before Wi-Fi will be replaced by 5G. Reality is, this is somewhere between new technology hype and wishful thinking (mostly from those positioning 5G services). By the numbers, Wi-Fi has around 14-15 billion devices deployed today, with about 4-5 billion being added each year. Pick the number you prefer, they are all over the map and all very, very high. On the other hand, a 2020 study estimated the total number of 5Gconnections will reach 1.5billion globally by2025. Now do the math, how long will really it take for 5G to reach these numbers – assuming the carriers actually deploy the approximately 4x more radios and towers required, and then businesses spending your own money to install indoor microcells to provide the lever of service required? Speaking only for myself, I just don’t have that many useful years left. Use yourself as the typical example, your next-generation phone will probably support 5G (or maybe the one after that). But now, how many tablets have cellular capability? How many PCs and how many smart TVs use it for connectivity? What about the home router and IoT devices? The average household is said to have at least 10 Wi-Fi connected devices today and that number is expected to continue to rise. Are you ready to rip all that out and replace with 5G cellular-connected devices and the monthly bill for the service that comes with it? NO!
You also see 5G whitepapers and analysts talk about the techie advantages of 5G, the ITU requirements. They state superiority in latency/reliability (URLCC), greater capacity (eMBB), and massive numbers for connection density (mMTC). Truth be told, Wi-Fi might not offer the identical levels, but it will provide the level of service required for your users and your applications in all these environments. So, don’t get hung up on the bits and bytes. I am old enough to recall an early battle for common communication technology. It was between ATM and Ethernet. On paper, ATM had all the cards, but at the end of the day, Ethernet delivered all the services required by the applications without the complexity and costs associated with ATM. Ethernet won and ATM faded away. Hmm, it was the carriers pushing the ATM message back then too. Makes you think.
The success of any technology is demonstrated not by how technically-advanced or important we all think it is, nor based on techie papers filled with glowing numbers. It’s the exact opposite. The success of a technology is based on how many people choose to use it over other offerings. 15 billion, that’s a lot of usage. And Wi-Fi is not done yet. While 5G is still in development Wi-Fi 6 is already at the plate; 6E is on deck; and Wi-Fi 7 in the hole. We have a great season to look forward to. Sorry – I’m missing baseball. Bottom line: as 5G continues to try and find a home, Wi-Fi is already firmly entrenched because it just works and will continue to evolve, getting more bandwidth, wider channels, greater reliability, additional security, additional use cases, ….
The Wi-Fi Professor