By Simon Hill 5-6 minutesThe advent of 5G mobile networking technology is slated to bring with it a revolution in how we access the internet. 5G promises to increase download speeds, eliminate latencies, and reduce congestion on mobile networks — in other words, it’ll give Wi-Fi a run for its money.
In the near future, Wi-Fi and 5G will be pitted against each other.
However, all signs point to us likely needing both networks to fully
take advantage of the internet of tomorrow.
What’s the difference between 5G and Wi-Fi?
We have a detailed explanation of what 5G is, but in brief, 5G is the
umbrella term for the fifth generation of mobile network technology, and
it encompasses a lot of different elements. Cellular or mobile networks
rely on licensed spectrum bands, which are auctioned off to the highest
bidder. Carriers, like Verizon or AT&T, have to pay to use those
bands. To roll out coverage they have to build a network of connected
base stations capable of sending out a strong enough signal that it can
serve multiple people (thousands in urban areas) at once. To recoup
their investment, they rely on us paying subscriptions.
Wi-Fi relies on unlicensed spectrum which is free for anyone to use, but
the signal is relatively weak. We pay an Internet Service Provider
(ISP) to deliver the internet to our door and then use a router to fill
our house with Wi-Fi. Using the same frequency band as your neighbors
can be a problem, especially if you live in a very densely populated
area. The two frequencies that Wi-Fi uses are 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. In simple
terms, 2.4Ghz has a lower potential top speed but penetrates better, so
it has a longer range than 5Ghz. It’s worth noting that 5Ghz Wi-Fi has
absolutely nothing to do with 5G mobile networks.
In every day life, most of us rely on Wi-Fi at home or in the office —
or in coffee shops — and mobile networks when we step out the front door
and move out of range of the router. Our smartphones switch
automatically and we don’t have to give it any thought, because the
important thing is simply having a good connection at all times. That
scenario will continue to be the case for the vast majority of people
after 5G rolls out. The difference is that both mobile networks and
Wi-Fi are going to get faster.
he promise of 5G
The prospect of download speeds between 1Gbps and 10Gbps, and upload
speed or latency of just 1 millisecond, has got people excited about 5G,
but the reality is that we won’t typically get anywhere near the
theoretical top speeds. The actual speed of your 5G connection will
depend on many factors including where you are, what network you’re
connecting to, how many other people are connecting, and what device
you’re using. The aim is to achieve a minimum download speed of 50Mbps
and latency of 10ms. That will represent a major improvement over
current average speeds, but just as with 4G LTE, 5G coverage is going to
expand slowly. It’s also going to work hand-in-hand, not just with
Wi-Fi, but with earlier generations of mobile network technology, so 4G
LTE will continue to be offered as a fallback and will continue to
evolve and get faster.
The promise of Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi has traditionally been very confusing in terms of the naming
conventions for standards. It went from 802.11b to 802.11a, 802.11g,
802.11n, and then 802.11ac, but thankfully the Wi-Fi Alliance (and
hopefully the industry at large) has accepted the need for something
less perplexing and so the next standard, 802.11ax is going to be called
Wi-Fi 6. This simpler naming convention is also being retrofitted, so
802.11ac will become Wi-Fi 5 and so on. The new Wi-Fi 6 standard should
offer speeds at least four times greater than Wi-Fi 5, but it will also
bring improvements in efficiency and capacity designed to cope with the
growing number of devices in the average home that connect to the
internet. Just like 5G, Wi-Fi 6 will complement, not replace, existing
What do you need to enjoy 5G or Wi-Fi 6?
There are two crucial pieces of the puzzle that need to be in place
before we can enjoy the faster speeds and superior performance that 5G
and Wi-Fi 6 will offer: Our carriers and ISPs have to build networks
with hardware capable of supporting these new technologies and speeds,
and we need to buy hardware capable of taking advantage. Our current
smartphones, laptops, and other devices lack the necessary antennas and
chips, but we expect to see the first wave of devices to support 5G and
Wi-Fi 6 rolling out this year. We’ll keep you posted on 5G-capable
phones and networks as they roll out. For Wi-Fi you’ll need to look for
the Wi-Fi 6 Certified logo.
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