Jan 23 2020

5G vs. Wi-Fi 6: The Friendly Rivalry That Will Benefit Business

The latest generations of wireless networking are poised to have a profound impact on businesses across sectors.

You use them every day, on nearly every device. There’s a good chance you’re using them right now to read this article.

It’s Wi-Fi and cellular, and as the number of connected devices grows, these technologies are being used more than ever before. Everything from your phone to your laptop — even some of your kitchen and household appliances — uses wireless and cellular networks to operate. As devices increasingly “talk” to each other, there’s more traffic on these networks than ever before. The landscape has changed, and it’s forced the networks to make adjustments.

Enter Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.

The next generation of wireless and cellular technologies, both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G bring the promise of higher capacity, lower latency and increased efficiency in both the consumer and enterprise markets. 

Adoption for each is still in the early stages, but in a world that grows more interconnected by the day, both will play a large role in networking going forward. An IHS Markit study found that 5G will generate $13.2 trillion in sales enablement by 2035, while another report predicts that the global economic impact of Wi-Fi will pass $3.47 trillion by 2023. As adoption spreads, businesses will be clamoring to find ways to optimize the technology.

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.”

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Read about the potential benefits 5G can bring businesses with new radio. 

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.”

$13.2 trillion

The amount in sales enablement that 5G will bring by 2035.

Source: IHS Markit

What Are the Biggest Advantages for Businesses of 5G and Wi-Fi 6?

While adoption is still in the early stages for both 5G and Wi-Fi 6, both hold immense potential for businesses. All sectors can benefit from faster data speeds and less latency, but industries that rely more on connected devices and mobility stand to gain the most from these new technologies.

“If you’re a smart grid, and you want to have better monitoring of your electrical grid and understand much better how to manage that power, having 5G IoT sensors and devices and capabilities would be an opportunity,” says Pearson.

As for Wi-Fi 6, MacPherson says that OFDMA scheduling can optimize devices’ battery use, which can be particularly useful for industries. “We’re already seeing improvements with these early deployments, but as the software becomes more sophisticated, as the scheduling algorithms become more sophisticated, we’re going to see those gains grow,” he says.

Both he and Pearson singled out manufacturing as a sector that could see big benefits with its embrace of IoT, from inventory management to safety.

“Perhaps on the factory floor there were limitations because you couldn’t get fiber to every robotic machine, or you couldn’t get fiber to certain endpoints for automating intelligence,” says Pearson. “When you look at what 5G can do, you start to think about being on the fast track to do that.”

DISCOVER: Is your organization ready to make the jump to Wi-Fi 6?

Higher Performance Will Support Mobile Working

The same advantages that can help businesses become more efficient will also help their workers get the job done. As more employees seek work/life balance, supported by teleworking and mobility, strong connections for collaboration technology are imperative. Remote work is powered by technologies such as videoconferencing and digital phones, and those need to be synced properly in order to be effective.

“You don’t want somebody talking on a screen and the voice coming in later looking like those old Japanese movies,” MacPherson says. “You want it to be synchronized, and you want it to be in real time.”

While the benefits will likely be vast, there will be adjustments, as with any adoption of new technology. “We’re entering an era where people can come up with new ideas, new business plans, and new ways of doing business,” predicts Pearson. “That will be, I think, positive for workers, but they will have to evolve as well.”

While some may have a preference for either 5G or Wi-Fi 6 as the best way to move forward, in reality, it’s a team effort, MacPherson says. “There are zealots out there who think that Wi-Fi 6 solves everything, and some who think 5G solves everything. But the answer is somewhere in the middle.”

“We are proponents of a bright future for 5G,” says Pearson of his organization, 5G Americas. “But we also feel that there’s a very healthy role for Wi-Fi 6.”

For companies like Cisco, MacPherson says the goal is a seamless networking experience. “It’s not just doing the technologies well, but the ability to connect technologies together,” he says. “What we want is to give you the best connectivity experience and make sure that you can access your services.”

Oleksandr Pupko/Getty Images

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