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Wireless connectivity has become an essential part of our day-to-day lives. It’s used in virtually every industry in the world, from being used to provide Wi-Fi throughout your home, to being able to broadcast advanced warning from buoys deployed in the oceans and beyond. The two most prominent and widely deployed of these technologies are Wi-Fi and 5G.

Wireless Fidelity, known more commonly as Wi-Fi, was introduced to replace the need for physical connectivity within smaller, more defined spaces, such as a home, an office, or public spaces such as coffee shops or airports.

5G, the fifth generation of mobile network technologies, was introduced to provide broader coverage than traditional Wi-Fi for mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets. This latest generation has been designed to enable new applications such as self-driving vehicles, remote surgeries, or high-speed connectivity in areas otherwise not served by traditional connectivity mediums like copper or fibre.

Taken at face value, Wi-Fi and 5G may appear to be competitive technologies, however over the past decade they’ve begun to converge together and offer complementary features to provide all of us with the best possible connectivity experience.

When does it make sense to use Wi-Fi instead of 5G?

There are several factors that can affect the decision as to when and where to implement Wi-Fi instead of 5G, which may include:

  • Deployment Complexity – 5G networks can be more complicated to deploy, requiring more components and configuration, as well as additional knowledge and expertise to be able to optimize it so that it functions well. If a 5G network is not optimized after it’s deployed, it is unlikely that you will be able to use mobility well.
  • Cost – Wi-Fi equipment is typically less expensive than that of 5G. This is largely because of the volume in which Wi-Fi chips are produced and used today. 5G networks also typically have more components, such as SIM cards, as well as core software, and that tends to increase the upfront deployment costs.
  • Spectrum Availability – Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed bands, generally with no usage cost involved. In densely populated areas, there is a high likelihood of in-band and adjacent channel interference due to the large number of operators present. This leads to poor quality of service and lower throughput for the user.
  • Device Compatibility – Not every device includes 5G connectivity. It is more common to find Wi-Fi support in many devices than it is to have embedded 5G functionality.

When does it make sense to use 5G instead?

There are some areas in which 5G is better suited over traditional Wi-Fi, including:

  • Wide Area Coverage – For many reasons, including design, EIRP limitations and Frequency/Band Availability, 5G networks can provide coverage to larger areas with a fewer number of gNodeBs when compared with Wi-Fi. 5G networks are typically deployed in areas measured in square miles, whereas Wi-Fi has been designed to be best used within a couple hundred feet.
  • Mobility – Designed from the ground up to be a mobile system, 5G is better suited to deployments where users are mobile and would be roaming between gNodeBs. Devices are able to be paged by the network, so they do not have to maintain constant connectivity with any one cell as they move around an area.
  • Low Latency – 5G enables Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) that allows for highly efficient and reliable data transfers, achieving latencies as low as 1ms. This functionality can be combined with 5G Network Slicing feature to enable real time applications, such as autonomous driving vehicles, where mission criticality is required. Traditional networks, including 4G, require uplink bandwidth to be scheduled before data transmission can occur. 5G implements grant-free uplink access, so devices can transmit data quicker without first having to wait for the scheduling request to occur.
  • Capacity – By design, cellular networks are intended to be highly efficient with a high volume of associated devices. Highly efficient scheduling and paging allow devices to remain attached while requiring little to no overhead. This leaves additional bandwidth available for the devices that are actively using the network and reduces overall congestion and interference.
  • Privacy and Security – 5G Networks offer more robust security and privacy mechanisms out of the box (OOTB). Requiring a SIM card, be it a USIM or an eSIM, to attach to the network adds a hardware component that is much more difficult to compromise than a traditional username and password. In 5G, Privacy is achieved by utilizing the Subscription Concealed Identifier (SUCI) in place of a traditional International Mobile Subscriber Identifier (IMSI)/Subscription Permanent Identifier (SUPI).

How do they complement one another?

Areas where the two technologies complement each other include:

  • Enhanced Coverage – Wi-Fi typically has a specific coverage area, where 5G provides broader coverage. By leveraging both technologies users can experience uninterrupted connectivity as they move from one area, or one technology, to the other.
  • Speed and Capacity – 5G typically offers faster speeds and increased capacity over traditional Wi-Fi. In scenarios where a large number of devices are connected to a single Wi-Fi access point, more often than not the overall performance is impacted.
  • Load Balancing – In populated areas with a high density of users, such as airports, shopping malls, or stadiums/arenas, Wi-Fi networks can be leveraged to offload traffic and improve the overall user experience.
  • Seamless Connectivity – 5G and Wi-Fi can be seamlessly integrated to provide uninterrupted connectivity. Devices can automatically switch between 5G and Wi-Fi connectivity based on a number of different factors, including signal strength and availability.
  • 5G Offloading – Wi-Fi is commonly used to offload excess traffic from the 5G network in areas where Wi-Fi is more readily available, such as in-building environments. By allowing users to offload from 5G to Wi-Fi, it can alleviate congestion from the cellular network and can optimize network efficiency by removing users from the 5G network that would have weak or limited connectivity and freeing up resource blocks.
  • Throughput Aggregation – Newer smartphones and mobile routers have added features that allow them to simultaneously attach to both Wi-Fi and 5G networks, among others, and aggregate the bandwidth from both networks to provide increased speed and performance to the end user.

Both Wi-Fi and 5G are important technologies that complement each other in different ways. While Wi-Fi is ideal for providing high-speed connectivity in smaller areas, 5G is designed and purpose-built to deliver faster, highly reliable mobile connectivity for devices that are on the go. Leveraging the two technologies together allows for a more cohesive deployment, allowing for enhanced coverage and performance, seamless connectivity, and a better end-user experience overall. There is no doubt that as these two technologies continue to advance, they will also continue to complement one another for the foreseeable future.

BLiNQ Networks is here to help you find the best solution for your company. Get in touch using our online form or call +1-800-301-4962 to learn more.