Yes, 5G and Wi-Fi6 Will Coexist Nicely

By: Shrihari Pandit

The need for next-generation connectivity is now as strong as the industry push for it. The need for increased bandwidth and faster speeds is clear, with over three billion Internet users active worldwide and our current infrastructure near its breaking limit. As Internet usage continues to grow with ever more content and services moving online, technology must evolve to keep up.

Enter 5G and Wi-Fi 6, each touting game-changing improvements.

Both are built upon the same fundamental idea: to extend wireline connections using radio waves. Up to now, 4G and Wi-Fi have been complementary, each supporting different use cases. As new technologies are introduced to the market, we’re faced with how they will integrate into our existing infrastructural framework. Moving forward the question has become, will 5G and Wi-Fi 6 produce revolutionary or evolutionary advances? And will 5G live up to its hype and supplant Wi-Fi for non-mobile uses? Let’s break it down.

The Future of 5G

The arrival of 5G is generating excitement, but what will it actually mean? Nearly a decade in the making, 5G —or, more simply put, the fifth generation of mobile cellular communications—is an evolutionary improvement over 4G networks, a fundamental re-architecture of wireless networks. But let’s back up to explain the bigger picture.

5G is the next step in mobile broadband technology. This newest generation will start off by augmenting current 4G LTE connections, and eventually replace 4G altogether. Major metropolitan areas are already suffering from slowdowns during high-traffic time periods, which is caused by diminished LTE capacity. 5G promises to give users both faster download and upload speeds, as well as quicker connectivity between devices.

5G has roots in the telephone industry and runs on a trio of spectrum bands, which are licensed for exclusive use by a variety of carriers including ATT, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. Select carriers began rolling out fixed 5G connectivity in 2018, while mobile 5G will continue to roll out throughout a handful of U.S. cities this year. Its versatility will come to the fore when we think about its three different bands of spectrum.

Sub-1GHz spectrum is primarily used for LTE by U.S. carriers—especially by T-Mobile—and offers a wide-ranging coverage area, but only at a maximum of 100Mbps. 5G’s mid-band spectrum—favored by carriers like Sprint—gives users faster coverage and low latency, but its range and functionality at a maximum of 1Gbps proves difficult throughout buildings and other common infrastructure. High-band functionality—being rolled out by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon—is synonymous with 5G, offering a peak speed of 10Gbps with an extremely low latency quotient. But high-band signals have limited coverage areas and suffer from even more severe penetration problems than mid-band spectrum. The physics of radio frequencies still applies, with an inverse relationship between robustness and coverage and bandwidth. Unfortunately, much of the 5G hype has glossed over these fundamentals.

2020 will open the floodgates for 5G, but there are a few challenges. Only the big carriers can deploy and use 5G, which is a huge undertaking. Successfully and strategically deploying a nationwide network for seamless mobile coverage from collectively connected base stations, whose signals are strong enough to serve multiple people across multiple areas at once, will require significant capital. 

Upgrading a nationwide network for 5G will also take carriers a long time to fully deploy, perhaps at least several years. 5G requires smaller cells, so many more locations need to be added, usually with fiber backhaul. Additionally, consumer adoption may lag as users wait to see the value of upgrading. Those in major cities that currently have access may very well be able to take advantage of lightning-fast connectivity speeds with a 5G-enabled device, but coverage so far is still severely limited.

To eventually recoup any sort of 5G investment, the carriers will most likely have to rely on increasing subscription premiums, which can also have a negative reaction on the consumer side. 

Additionally, the speed of your 5G connection will still vary depending on your location. Since each carrier will have differing rollout strategies, your experience using 5G in New York may be totally different than that of your parents who live halfway across the country in Chicago. Even then, experience in each location will also vary by carrier.


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