Corner OfficeExpert Opinion

Wi-Fi 6 and the Quest for Faster Mobility

By Anand Patil

A few weeks ago, on a Monday morning in October, Mumbai witnessed a rare occurrence. A grid failure resulted in a massive power outage across the city and its neighboring areas. Millions of residents were impacted for several hours, as trains stopped on their tracks, and hospitals and essential services had to switch to backup power to keep their services running. For those of us working from home, broadband services were hit as Wi-Fi routers were turned off. I turned on my mobile 4G hotspot, but with multiple people at home and in the neighborhood choosing the same option, the connectivity was sub-optimal, compared to the high-speed broadband connection.

The Next Generation

Over half a billion users in India are connected to the Internet today, and according to a Cisco report, this is predicted to grow to over 900M users by 2023. A majority of these users will use mobile broadband as their primary connection to the world. To be able to support this growth and the myriad of new real-time, high-density applications and use cases is the promise of 5G.

Each generation of mobile technology has brought with it higher supported data rates – and the Fifth Generation is no different in this aspect –with more available bandwidth and advanced antenna technology, 5G promises to be at least 10 times faster than 4G.But that’s where the similarity ends. The 5G standard also delivers ultra-low latency – which enables real-time feedback – and offers advanced management features, among them network slicing, which allows mobile operators to create multiple virtual networks out of a single physical network.

Apart from enhanced wireless broadband, 5G has the capability to support futuristic uses that require high-speed, high-security, ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability – such as self-driving cars, which need to navigate in real-time. Other applications include broadband in high-speed trains, augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), remote healthcare, industrial automation and massive machine-to-machine communications such as traffic lights that talk to each other in smart cities. In short, 5G will be transformational and enable many new applications that are not possible today. For an Enterprise that requires high speed, ultra-reliable, low-latency, high-density wireless connectivity, it can consider building a private 5G network. This will become the preferred choice for large-scale environments like airports, ports, automated manufacturing plants, logistics centers, and the like.

In terms of deployment, hundreds of operators around the world have announced trials and pilots of 5G – with many reaching commercial deployment. In India, the roll-out will be dependent on the allocation and auctioning of spectrum to the operators, and widespread availability is still a few years away. At the same time, we are starting to see newly launched devices like the latest generation of smartphones that support 5G.

The Other Wireless Technology

While 5G is making waves in the mobile technology market, another standard is quietly being deployed for smaller-scale but similar requirements – WiFi6. If you have already heard of the 6th Generation of Wi-Fi technology, have you wondered what happened to the first 5? The answer is that the previous generations of Wi-Fi technology were simply known by the name of their engineering standard – e.g. 802.11ac. The Wi-Fi Alliance decided to simplify this alphabet soup and give an easier alias to 802.11ax, which is the 6th generation of Wi-Fi technology.

WiFi6 aims to solve some of the same problems as 5G – and therefore it has features such as high bandwidth, reduced latency, and improved security. Typical use cases for Wi-Fi 6 include high-density environments such as sports stadiums, college campuses and other public venues, apart from enhanced AR/VR applications, massive-scale IoT and the like.

Wi-Fi 6 also has enhancements to improve battery life in client devices, which means batteries in products such as smartphones, laptops and IoT devices can last longer. Today, there are hundreds of Wi-Fi 6 end-points available in the market – from smartphones to laptops, tablets and IoT devices. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 is designed to operate on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi bands and is backward compatible with devices from the previous generations.

What Should I be deploying now?

Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 support similar use cases, and at first, seem like competing technologies. However, this is quite far from the truth. While each has the same technological underpinnings, they also have their own unique applications. Wi-Fi and licensed radio technologies already complement each other for considerations of coverage and cost – and will continue to do so with their next generation versions as well. Cellular technologies like 5G will continue to dominate outdoors environments requiring large geographical coverage while Wi-Fi will be more useful in indoor environments and campuses. At the same time, users will be able to seamlessly roam between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 connections without the need to re-authenticate.

For example, an Enterprise that currently runs a previous generation of Wi-Fi can simply upgrade the Access Points to take advantage of the new Wi-Fi 6 clients being launched, while supporting the older devices in the same manner. Whereas 5G will be more efficient for implementation within large urban and rural areas such as smart cities and townships.

There are some areas where either technology could work well – called cross-over use cases – such as large-scale IoT in industrial and manufacturing environments. However, it may be a while before 5G connections and end devices become commonly available, and therefore for the near-term future, Wi-Fi 6 provides a cost-effective and quick way to get started.

So, in conclusion –the next generation of mobile, wireless technology aims at catering to next-generation use cases that will become commonplace in the coming years, while providing for the ever-increasing demand for faster speeds and lower latencies.

(The author is Director, Systems Engineering, Cisco India and SAARC and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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