5G vs. Wi-Fi: How they’re different, and why you’ll need both

5G mobile networking technology is slated to bring with it a revolution in how we use and access the internet. The new technology promises to increase download speeds, nearly eliminate latency, and reduce congestion on mobile networks. In other words, 5G is going to give Wi-Fi a run for its money. While Wi-Fi and 5G will be pitted against each other, all signs point to us likely needing both technologies to fully take advantage of the internet of tomorrow. 5G will undoubtedly come in handy in many situations, while Wi-Fi, which is still being developed and updated, will be useful in other situations.

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 signal that’s strong enough for the network to serve multiple people (thousands in urban areas) at once. To recoup their investment, they rely on us paying subscriptions.

coaxifi router

Wi-Fi relies on unlicensed spectrum that’s free for anyone to use, but has a relatively weak signal. 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, which, on the other hand, can deliver faster speeds but doesn’t penetrate things like walls as easily.

It’s worth noting that 5GHz Wi-Fi has absolutely nothing to do with 5G mobile networks.

In everyday 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 see performance improve.

The promise of 5G

The prospect of download speeds between 1Gbps and 10Gbps, and upload speed, or latency, of just 1 millisecond has people excited about 5G. Those speeds are comparable to what you’d see from a physical Ethernet connection. However, the reality is 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 keep evolving and getting faster.

The promise of Wi-Fi 6

Benefits of Wi-fi 6 (802.11ax)
Intel

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.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (and the industry at large) has accepted the need for something less perplexing, so the next standard, 802.11ax, is marketed as 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?

Samsung's 5G concept phone
Samsung’s 5G concept phone

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 the first wave of devices to support 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have already begun rolling out. 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.

The future of internet connectivity

As more and more routers have Wi-Fi 6 built into them, and more and more cell towers beam out 5G networks, our internet speeds, both at home and on the go, will get faster, with lower latency. More technologies will spring up too. As 4G enabled things like online mobile gaming and mobile streaming, 5G will enable a range of new use cases, like connected cars.

Of course, only time will tell what the future really holds for internet connectivity, but expect to be seeing the terms “5G” and “Wi-Fi 6” a whole lot more in the next few years.

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