Next-Gen Connectivity – Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Compared


What Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Have in Common:

Core Technologies: Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are both based on orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) technology, which originated from LTE. Wi-Fi 6 introduces subcarriers for simultaneously transmitting user data. In addition, multi-user multiple-input multiple-output (MU-MIMO) is used by Wi-Fi 6 to increase both the per-AP bandwidth and the access capacity by four times.

How Are Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Different:

Application Scenarios: Wi-Fi 6 is a short-distance wireless technology and is most suitable for indoor coverage. Due to the limitation of spectrum resources and power, Wi-Fi 6 does not work well in outdoor long-distance scenarios where signals are prone to interference. The 5G network is planned and managed uniformly by the national authorities based on licensed spectrum resources. For outdoor coverage, signal interference is low, and therefore 5G is a feasible solution. For indoor coverage, however, high-frequency (24 GHz to 52 GHz) signals used by 5G are extremely prone to attenuation, and consequently, complex network planning is required for 5G deployment. Wi-Fi has an obvious advantage over 5G when it comes to deployment and maintenance for indoor coverage. As such, 5G is mainly used in public venues, public network access, and public IoT infrastructure of smart cities. Conversely, Wi-Fi is mainly used for self-built campus networks of enterprises and indoor high-density access.

Spectrum Acquisition: The 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums of Wi-Fi are unlicensed, meaning registration is not necessary. Enterprises can simply buy Wi-Fi devices to get free access to 10 Gbit/s wireless networks brought by Wi-Fi 6. By contrast, 5G frequency bands require approvals from relevant government agencies from each country. The spectrum application can be a lengthy process and is not suitable for all enterprises. For small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) without fixed campus networks, 5G frequency band application and 5G base station deployment are not realistic.

Costs: Wi-Fi deployment is simple and Wi-Fi APs are becoming more intelligent (for example, Huawei uses smart antenna and SmartRadio RF calibration technologies). Wi-Fi network planning and O&M has become easier than ever before and can be achieved without highly-trained experts. On the contrary, 5G network planning and deployment require extensive network planning and simulation that requires verification by professional wireless network planning engineers, increasing investment, deployment, and maintenance costs considerably.

Deployment: The cost of deployment for Wi-Fi 6 terminals is lower - only a simple chip upgrade is required to convert Wi-Fi 5 terminals to Wi-Fi 6, without the need to change the architecture design. Portable terminals can even quickly support Wi-Fi 6 through PCIe cards, accelerating the development of the entire industry. The evolution to 5G terminals requires a complete redesign of the product, adding significant cost and complexity to the system. Therefore, Wi-Fi 6 network is the preferred choice for non-critical terminals such as printers, electronic whiteboards, intelligent building control systems, projection TVs, and telepresence systems. In April 2019, Intel released the Wi-Fi 6 network adapter, allowing legacy terminals to support Wi-Fi 6 through PCIe.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Are Complementary

While 5G promises to deliver unparalleled speed, it is not without weaknesses – namely, costly indoor coverage and poor terminal compatibility. On the other hand, Wi-Fi 6 excels in indoor environments. It can handle even the most demanding scenarios that require high bandwidth, large capacity, and low latency, making it ideal for bandwidth-hungry and latency-sensitive applications such as VR, 4K, and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Therefore, for enterprises, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G should be deployed together to create an optimal cost-effective network that can handle a wide range of scenarios. For some special cases such as oilfields, mines, and AGVs, 5G has unique advantages including low latency and wide coverage.

In high-density outdoor venues like squares and stadiums, the 5G network will not be able to meet the high capacity demands of the users unless 5G base stations are added. In this case, the high-density access capability of Wi-Fi 6 is a cost-effective solution to tackle this problem and allow a large number of users and terminals to get high-quality coverage.