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No, 5G won't kill WiFi
March 24, 2017 | By Dean Bubley @ Disruptive Analysis
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I've seen two things today that are trying to suggest that 5G (or even 4G) are going to cause problems for WiFi, or even "kill it".

 

Ignore them.

 

Firstly, this piece by Bloomberg (link) suggests that a combination of mobile operators' renewed flat-rate data plans, along with LTE-U, could render WiFi obsolete. It's one of the worst pieces of technology "journalism" I've read in ages.

 

Secondly a discussion on Twitter led to a 3GPP document about "New Services and Markets" from a year ago, which talks about "Mobile Broadband for Indoor Scenario" in section 5.5 (link). That seems to suggest that 4G/5G could replace office WiFi or even wired LANs.

 

Needless to say, both are total nonsense. There is a longstanding strain of thought among some "cellular fundamentalists" that WiFi is just a step away from being replaced by mobile operators' services. It is wishful thinking, verging on delusion. (It won't be subsumed as a mere secondary part of 5G, either - although that's a separate post).

 

While there are some corner-cases that might swing one way or the other, based on pricing and perhaps neutral-host cellular using LTE in unlicensed bands (perhaps in MuLTEfire guise rather than the anti-competitive LTE-U and LAA variants), those are rare exceptions.

 

In home, offices, and public spaces, there is essentially zero chance that owned WiFi or fixed ethernet are going to be replaced in large quantity, by 5G operators acting as LANaaS providers.

 

There are many reasons for this, but some of them are:

  • Billions of WiFi-only devices, from PCs and tablets, to TVs, printers and a broad array of consumer and industrial products.
  • Billions more WiFi-only devices in future (no, not everything will have a cellular module & eSIM - it's way more expensive and limiting - see my report link)
  • The ability for WiFi to operate easily in "service", "subscription", "amenity", "owned", "free", "local", "sponsored", "venue-provided", "ad-supported" and many other business models. Cellular connectivity - reliant on SIM or eSIM - generally enshrines "subscription" and a service model as the only option.
  • Ability of venue-owners to control and police WiFi network access (eg a cafe-owner or conference organiser can give the codes to their choice of user, under their conditions)
  • Use of WiFi Direct for P2P connectivity
  • Integration of WiFi in businesses with LAN and security systems
  • Preferential use of WiFi in-built to smartphone OS's and connection-management tools
  • Large % of people who are not using flat-rate mobile data plans, especially prepay users in most of the world
  • A broad view that WiFi is not only "free" but also *different* as it isn't owned / metered / tracked by service providers. (You've all seen that revised Maslow pyramid with WiFi scrawled as a tier beneath food & shelter, I bet)
  • Anonymity of most WiFi hotspots
  • Huge push of WiFi by cable, fixed-broadband and some WiFi-first MVNO providers, including to outdoor / metropolitan zones and being built-into 500 million or more home gateways around the world
  • Use of WiFi in public transport (buses, trains, planes) - even if backhauled by 4G and/or satellite, plus increasing use of WiFi hotspots in cars (again, linked via LTE to the network)
  • Poor penetration of cellular for deep-inbuilding use without DAS or small cell coverage, which is often impractical
  • Lower costs of infrastructure, especially given the heavy IPR load associated with 4G modems and base stations. 
  • Enterprise desire to use multiple connections for cloud/WAN access, eg via SD-WAN

 

I think the most risible line in the Bloomberg piece is this "Wi-Fi also helps fill in gaps in some office buildings and homes that have spotty cellphone coverage" - in many ways, it's the complete opposite of the way many users view the two technologies.

 

Every analysis I've seen has suggested that WiFi use is generally growing faster than cellular data consumption, and there is very little reason to expect it to change. In many ways, I'd expect WiFi - and also other unlicensed band technologies for LPWAN and IoT - to outstrip coming cellular use-cases, especially indoors but also for the wide area.

 

A less-virulent strain of the same bad idea is that 5G will absorb or subsume WiFi, as part of its amazing network-slicing / HetNet / integrated architecture. That's wrong too - although some cellular networks are fairly-well integrated with some WiFi, there is a very large universe that isn't, and for many of the same reasons won't be in the future either. The notion that 5G is some sort of magical wireless umbrella (or Borg) that will assimilate all others is just a "mobile industry establishment" fantasy and lobbying hook.

 

One last thing I'd add - I'm seeing an increased amount of interest in the opposite to LTE-U and LAA - the idea of running WiFi in licensed bands, either with new forms of spectrum-sharing, or perhaps even with adventurous regulators looking at getting more usage out of existing spectrum. After all, if the technical work suggests that LTE-U doesn't compromise or interfere with WiFi, then the converse is true as well, especially at lower power in regions with no cellular coverage, or indoors.

 

Overall: Ignore any reports of WiFi's demise, or the ability of 4G/5G to replace it in the future. It's simply not going to happen, except in a couple of tiny overlaps on the big wireless Venn diagram. WiFi puts downward pricing pressure on cellular data - it's probably part of the reason for the return of flatrate data in the first place. It's also a prime example of "network diversity" which would be worthy of protection against creeping cellular "network monoculture", even if it wasn't already guaranteed a healthy future.

 
     
James (Corning Optical Communications) v 2017-04-25 10:12:25

LTE-U is barely alive so 5G wouldn't be an issue with WiFi. 5G is paid Spectrums!

Roger (Fortinet) via LinkedIn 2017-04-25 12:18:55

The last thing I want is telcos polluting a public resource. That is what I predict will happen.

Robert (ViaSat) via LinkedIn 2017-04-25 13:53:43

I thought EVDO killed Wi-Fi. Oops, nope wasnt then. Oh wait, surely it was 4G LTE that sent Wi-Fi to its maker. Umm, that still didn't happen. Well then surely this 5G thing is the ultimate Wi-Fi killer. #NOTGONNAHAPPEN. Here's why -- Wi-Fi innovation is outpacing wide area, in that the speeds across Wi-Fi continue to improve, provide better coverage indoors, and there are billions of devices currently in the marketplace and billions more coming which won't have a cellular chipset.

Kenneth (m-FINANCE) via LinkedIn 2017-04-25 20:35:55

Years ago, 3G should have killed wifi too :-)

Andrew (neXgen) via LinkedIn 2017-04-25 20:37:01

But the user experience with WiFi is sadly lacking, that is the battle ground, can telcos price so competitively many of us forgo the hassle of getting on WiFi? Or can WiFi operators get a Unified Experience? Hasn't0 happened in any town I've been in lately

Jordi (Social & Beyond) via LinkedIn 2017-04-26 08:42:32

No way! Wifi is the ONLY chipset besides GSM that most of us always carry powered on in our pockets. And User Data Demand grows exponentially, 5G infrastructure deployment cannot grow in that crazy speed...

Shiv Kumar Singh (HFCL) via LinkedIn 2017-04-26 09:29:49

I agree to the view point that 5G won't kill WIFI. WIFI is also evolving rapidly and will find its own space despite 5G or more. In fact it will be complimentary!

Ershad (Automotive) via LinkedIn 2017-04-26 10:18:43

Certainly, wifi will prevail as it had in the past.

Ulli (Willenbrock Fördertechnik) via Lin 2017-04-26 14:58:15

Great article. 5G will increase mobile traffic significantly but will never make wifi obsolete.

J. Nicholas (Professor at Notre Dame) vi 2017-04-26 16:31:41

What about LTE in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band?

Peter (Excel IT) via LinkedIn 2017-04-26 18:55:50

Very good and interesting post. 
Apart from the fact that many devices we carry are wifi only - there is the other issue of 5G signals actually getting inside the buildings they need to. 
Modern structures with anti-UV glass and steel cages are not great for any RF to penetrate - therefore a distributed antenna system (DAS) is typically necessary to get the mobile network operators (MNO) signal in to and out of a building. These systems are expensive! And the MNO's don't pay for them anymore ... so it's up to the landlord ... 
Oh, and if you put in an expensive 4G DAS system in your building last year it may have to be completely replaced for 5G... (standards not fully agreed for 5G yet for DAS). 
So - WiFi will prevail for a long time I believe.

Michael (Huawei) via LinkedIn 2017-04-26 21:02:59

Shared spectrum is a kind of mediator between wifi and licensed technology like 5G

Yonatan (Broadcom) via LinkedIn 2017-04-27 10:15:03

5G does not intend to transmit in unlicensed spectrum?

Peter (Secureinfo Corp) via LinkedIn 2017-04-27 12:16:08

Nice article.

Nitin (Z-Com Global) via LinkedIn 2017-04-27 18:36:23

This is highly motivating specially for the Carrier Grade Wi-Fi products vendor like Z-Com.

Michel (aerial.ai) via LinkedIn 2017-04-29 15:31:06

For sure not. Short range communications will perform better than conventional cell architectures. OFDM plus coding capabilities are the same then, who has a better SNR?? I cannot agree more.

arindam (Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd) via 2017-05-01 12:51:50

Very true. WiFi will continue for a long time to come. 
I would like to see WiFi diversifying into two compartments, a low power one, CX catering to IoT and other low bit rate services, coexisting with BLE and ZigBee in the 2.4 GHz band, and a high throughput flavor, in the 5 Gz and later in the 66 GHz band. 
It does not make sense for WiFi to encroach on 4G or 5G territory in providing carrier grade services. 
It should retain it's original flavor of being a personalized technology, which is easy to deploy and use. 
Public hotspots should migrate to 4G or 5G, as authentication, handoffs and interference mitigation is not natively built in. 
Instead, the standardization bodies should concentrate on lower power consumption, and on providing a robust handoff mechanism between outdoor Cellular and indoor ( residential ) WiFi for voice and video services. 
On a similar vein, Cellular technologies should stay clear from residential small cell offerings and leave it to WiFi access points.

Sanajivv (Emerson) via LinkedIn 2017-05-04 08:34:10

We do not have 3G and 4g is place , expecting 5G is tooo much.....

Chun-Yeow (elekom Research & Development 2017-05-08 10:55:53

WiFi is still considered as one highly potential non 3GPP access for 5G. Based on the ubiquitous of WiFi, it will last for many years even if 5G really picks up!

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