The emergence of 5G wireless networking technology has created widespread speculation about the future of Wi-Fi. The 5G wireless standard offers broadband-like speeds and more reliable mobile connectivity. But will 5G completely replace Wi-Fi in the near future?
Enterprises won’t be faced with a decision between the two wireless standards any time soon. For all the perceived shortcomings of the current iteration of Wi-Fi, based on the 802.11ac wave 2 specification, the predicted imminent demise of Wi-Fi has been greatly exaggerated. While 5G continues to gain greater acceptance and adoption, Wi-Fi and 5G are likely to coexist for the foreseeable future.
In fact, Wi-Fi is likely to have a five-year runway of usefulness before being completely replaced by 5G. Let’s look at some of the key factors why this is the case.
The upcoming update to 802.11
The current Wi-Fi version is the 802.11ac wave 2, which offers high throughput that can support a dense user community. While the available throughput far exceeds a user’s ability to consume it, the real advantage is the ability to support a great number of simultaneous users.
Yet the IEEE roadmap for continued adoption and commercialization of Wi-Fi as a business solution is facing an uphill battle.
The next Wi-Fi iteration on the IEEE docket for ratification sometime in 2019 is 802.11ax, with commercial products taking another one to three years to become generally available. It will operate in the same 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums as 802.11ac, and it will incorporate additional bands between 1 and 7 GHz. The new 802.11ax offers speeds in the 10 Gbit/s range with lower latency and higher user density than the 802.11ac wave 2, which makes Wi-Fi start to sound a lot like 5G to the end user.
Enterprises are rolling out 802.11ac wave 2 now as upgrades to end of life 802.11 a/b/g/n infrastructure and greenfield deployments. As the current technology runs through the normal product lifecycle, it creates the aforementioned five-year runway.
The Betamax vs VHS technology type of inflection point
All indications are that we’re reaching a “wireless standards war” between Wi-Fi and 5G, similar to the Betamax vs VHS and Blu-Ray vs HD DVD format wars of years past. Only the timeframe is up for debate.
Providers are rolling out 5G now, initially targeting home users as a replacement for cable TV/consumer broadband. Cellphones and mobile hotspots are already available with 5G chipsets, and production is ramping up to include 5G capability in anything that supports Wi-Fi or LTE.
We are seeing enterprises interested in 5G access to augment dedicated Internet and commercial broadband in SD-WAN deployments. The increase in outsourced managed network services (MNS) enables enterprises to focus on their core competency with an expectation of taking cost out of contract renewals. To achieve these objectives, they need to realize an economy of scale, which is only possible by adopting a single wireless technology.
The future of commercial Wi-Fi
How much longer will carriers like AT&T run Wi-Fi alongside their carrier-class networks? The answer depends on demand-side economies of scale and the expectation of ever-decreasing cost. The market is seeing a growing need for low-latency, high-throughput bandwidth to enable IoT connectivity, autonomous vehicles, mobile data collection and access, edge computing, and AI-enabled apps, to name a few. It simply may not make economic, strategic or competitive sense to invest in multiple wireless access technologies that are indistinguishable to the end user and deliver similar performance.
It’s possible that 802.11ac wave 2 will be the last widespread commercial monetization of Wi-Fi. But don’t expect a flip of the switch from Wi-Fi to 5G like we saw with previous standards wars, when one day we had both and the next day we had one. Businesses depend too much on installed legacy and the current generation user base of 802.11 wireless for it to suddenly disappear – not to mention, 5G is only in the nascent stages of rollout.
ISG helps enterprises navigate the changing network landscape. Contact me to discuss further.
About the author
Spencer Suderman works with enterprises to achieve IT operational efficiency through increased automation, lessening the impacts of service degradation and increasing the productivity of human resources. He is experienced in improving IT as a strategic asset through network architecture, automation, workflow reengineering and supplier management. As a Principal Consultant in ISG’s Network & Software Advisory Practice, Spencer is focused on helping clients identify and capture cost and value optimization opportunities in their enterprise, ERP, application and subscription-based software and IT hardware. Before joining ISG, Spencer led strategic efforts at a well-known theme park and resort operator to increase the scope of network automation to support digital transformation, enable planning for software-defined networks and network functions virtualization. Additional workstreams to improve the development of network infrastructure standards led to reduced mean time to repair outages and service degradations.