opinion


5G and Wi-Fi development: debunking five common industry myths

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Markus Nispel, VP of International Markets, Office of the CTO at Extreme Networks, examines some common misconceptions about 5G and Wi-Fi.

In many ways 5G and Wi-Fi are two sides of the same coin. They’re both wireless network protocols based on agreed standards, they use similar technologies, and they both address our need for connectivity.

However, their evolutions have been rather different. Wi-Fi has long been woven deeply into the cultural fabric of our daily lives – from enhancing business operations to enabling education and much more. In comparison, 5G has generated a lot of hype and has only recently started to bring a wider range of real-world use cases to life. For example, there is a growing enterprise interest in private 5G for the likes of video analytics and industrial IoT in manufacturing.

These developments have prompted discussions about the value and future of both technologies. And, while some of it is valid, there are still many misconceptions floating around the industry. But what’s the truth? Let’s take a look at five of the most common myths regarding 5G and wi-fi networks.

Myth #1 – They align generationally

This is one of the most common myths around and concerns the development timelines of the two technologies. For example, the wireless industry has recently been comparing Wi-Fi 6 with 5G, but this simply isn’t a fair comparison when you consider their respective evolution. It’s like comparing an entire season of a TV show with a single episode of another.

That’s because Wi-Fi and 5G develop at different rates. Wi-Fi has always released and adopted new standards in 3 to 4-year increments, so each generation lasts a few years before the next update comes along. Cellular has a similar incremental process – known as 3GPP releases – but these updates are bundled together into generational packages known as 4G or 5G that last around a decade.

There’s a valid reason for these differing approaches. Wi-Fi lifecycles are generally much more agile, while cellular requires longer deployment cycles and more complex integrations. However, the result is that we end up comparing the wrong things. Instead of comparing Wi-Fi 6 with 5G, it would be more accurate to compare it with 3GPP Release 16.

As an industry, we must make sure we compare Wi-Fi and 5G correctly. We must align the timelines and consider the development lifecycles of these technologies, rather than just their release dates.

Myth #2 – Private 5G and Wi-Fi always compete

This one is a bit of a grey area, which all comes down to how we think about the 5G technology market. 5G can be very roughly divided into two segments: macro and micro (or private).

The private space includes everything that’s deployed or operated by enterprises. This market as a whole may eventually become bigger than Wi-Fi, but that doesn’t mean they are always competitors. There are multiple sub-markets here, which include DAS replacement for neutral host, solutions that replace other legacy approaches to communications and voice, solutions for IoT, fixed wireless access for WWAN, and a number of IT/OT use cases on the enterprise LAN.

What this means is that private 5G must be sliced up in terms of its competitiveness with Wi-Fi. The truth is that some applications within certain private 5G sub-markets certainly do compete, whereas others don’t.

Myth #3 – 5G must aim to replicate Wi-Fi

This is another partial truth. Because Wi-Fi has been deployed in the enterprise, people tend to think that 5G needs to become just like it. But that would mean ignoring the many strengths cellular brings as a technology that Wi-Fi doesn’t currently offer.

For example, it delivers superior coverage per radio, which is partly a function of spectrum regulations and transmit power, but there are also technical elements of cellular as a protocol that improve range beyond Wi-Fi. It also has advantages with mobility, security and application determinism.

Of course, Wi-Fi has its own unique strengths – most notably its usability, unlicensed spectrum, LAN integration capabilities, and cost-efficiency. But rather than saying that 5G should become just like Wi-Fi, we should be recognising that they have different strengths. Wi-Fi’s shortcomings (most notably coverage and determinism) tend to be 5G’s strengths.

So, in some ways it’s true that 5G should replicate Wi-Fi to gain traction in the enterprise. But the Wi-Fi industry should also be considering its relative weaknesses during the development of Wi-Fi 7, so it can start closing gaps against 5G’s strengths (I would focus on better application SLAs and improving roaming).

Myth #4 – Convergence is a given

The convergence debate generates plenty of attention in the wireless industry. People often say that the two technologies will eventually converge because they’ll both be deployed in the enterprise, driven by a mixture of business opportunities and operational requirements for capabilities like increased resiliency and ubiquitous coverage.

This does have some truth in it, but the misconception is usually the way in which they’ll converge. The elements that will converge are the experience elements, particularly as private 5G enters the mix of wired and wireless integration. This will cover areas like the management process, the policy, and the platforms (edge and cloud) these technologies are deployed on. Enterprise IT users put a high premium on usability and unified management, so private 5G will no doubt be pulled into that fold. Route to market will also converge as enterprise-focused partners and system integrators add private 5G skills and solutions to their portfolios.

What won’t converge are the protocols. 3GPP and IEEE/Wi-Fi Alliance efforts will not collapse into one. Similarly, many think that radio hardware will be an early area of convergence – assuming that we’ll just add a 5G radio to Wi-Fi access points. But these technologies use different spectrums, solve different requirements, and are deployed in different densities. Adding radios also adds cost and power draw requirements. It may be a future, but these limiting factors mean it’s not a near-term reality.

Myth #5 – Advertised specs match the user experience

This one is important to keep in mind. In terms of the process, the ITU announces 5G technology requirements and 3GPP then develops a series of releases to address those requirements. Current ITU objectives cover the downlink peak data rate (20 Gbps), the uplink peak data rate (10 Gbps) and latency (1ms), among others.

However, in reality, 5G rarely actually delivers these specs. That’s largely because the 3GPP releases define technology blueprints – i.e., how you *can* deliver a specific requirement, not necessarily how you *will* deliver it – so products never adopt all the features of the releases. As a result, there’s usually a significant difference between the advertised specs of 5G and the real-world experience for any given user.

Similarly, the 1ms latency requirement is commonly referenced, but simply doesn’t align with 5G’s current capabilities. Even if/when it does deliver this, it refers to a one-way radio-only measurement rather than an end-to-end system metric. That’s why we must always remember to take any advertised specs – whether for 5G or Wi-Fi – with a pinch of salt.

Ultimately, these two technologies still have plenty of evolution and development ahead of them. There’s no doubt that 5G and Wi-Fi will play key roles in our society’s future, both as complementary technologies and distinct protocols. The key for us as an industry will be to focus on what they can enable and their vast potential, instead of letting myths or misconceptions cloud our judgement.

 

Markus Nispel is currently Vice President of International Markets and a member of the office of CTO at Extreme Networks, a position he has held for almost 9 years. With over 20 years of experience in management and marketing across the telecoms and networking sectors, Markus brings invaluable expertise and leadership to the company. He previously worked at Cabletron Systems.

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