It has been a few years since the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized internet access as a basic human right, albeit in a non-binding resolution, but most of us have viewed it as an essential part of our lives for a lot longer than that. Smartphones have become the most popular way to get online and we rely on two technologies to connect: Mobile networks and Wi-Fi. Both technologies are constantly evolving and improving.
When a new generation of mobile network technology comes along, it’s often held up as the bright future of our internet connectivity and there are sometimes suggestions that it’s set to replace everything else, but the idea of 5G vs. Wi-Fi is disingenuous because what we really want is both.
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.
The 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 Wi-Fi standards.
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.