5G vs. Wi-Fi 6: What’s the Difference?
Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are the latest versions of their respective technologies. 5G is the next generation of cellular, following LTE and LTE Advanced. As anyone with a cellphone probably knows, cellular networks broadcast from towers strategically placed to provide coverage to wide areas. Customers have probably heard their cell service providers boast about the number of towers they have access to or how much surface area they cover as they try to lure them away from competitors.
The promise of 5G may sound familiar, as each new generation has rolled out with similar benefits: faster data speeds, increased capacity and lower latency. But 5G differs from cellular networks of the past in its potential to operate in unlicensed spectrum, giving it access to broadband that wasn’t available in previous generations, resulting in faster processing and stronger connections.
In the age of the Internet of Things, this can be crucial. “It’s providing the ability to not just connect millions of devices for IoT or massive machine-to-machine communications, but actually billions of devices,” says Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, an advocacy organization.
5G adoption is “in the second inning of a nine-inning baseball game,” says Pearson, but it’s ramping up. There have been 51 commercial deployments so far, and at minimum all of the major mobile service providers have plans for 5G rollouts, he says:
“Any business that wants a very secure, reliable network with a lot of service capabilities from end to end will be looking at 5G as an option.”
What Are the New Features of Wi-Fi 6?
As 5G is to cellular, Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax) is the most recent standard for wireless network transmission — and like 5G, it promises to be faster, broader and smarter than previous generations.
But Wi-Fi 6 also brings new possibilities to the table that older wireless standards don’t offer. A big difference, says Cisco Wireless CTO Matt MacPherson, is the use of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access. With OFDMA, an access point can be configured to allocate its entire channel to a single user for a specified time, if desired, or the channel can be set to accommodate multiple users simultaneously (ideal for low-bandwidth applications). The result: increased efficiency and reduced latency, or lag time.
“What you can do is you can say I need to get this much traffic off the network, and I’m going to schedule these devices to use different slots and avoid each other so that we can better optimize the network,” MacPherson says.
It’s a change that MacPherson says has become a necessity with the rise of IoT. High-density environments used to be limited mostly to stadiums and concert halls, but with businesses using more and more devices, coupled with personal devices such as smartwatches, enterprises have become high-density environments as well.
“The fact that we can be more efficient means that as density goes up, we can control the collision domain,” says MacPherson. “And if we can control the collision domain, then we can give you a predictable experience.”