Will Wi-Fi 6 Ride to the Rescue?


Will Wi-Fi 6 Ride to the Rescue

The latest generation of Wi-Fi could help bridge the gap between 4G and fully-fledged 5G

For Europe in general, and the Netherlands in particular, ‘the real 5G’ is proving to be a slow burn. That could be costly. Noting that 5G could add up to €1 trillion to EU GDP between 2021 and 2025, the European Court of Auditors has called for “new impetus” to boost the rollout of 5G in the EU. That call reflects the fact that early versions (lower frequencies) of 5G have been somewhat underwhelming and acceleration is required.

With the Netherlands still to auction and release key 5G spectrum (in the 3.5 GHz band), an unsung hero may yet come to the rescue. Wi-Fi 6 – the latest generation of Wi-Fi - looks set to provide many of the benefits promised by 5G, at least indoors. To date, Wi-Fi 6 has largely flown under the radar - it hasn’t had anywhere near the media profile of 5G. Yet, globally, Wi-Fi 6 devices are outselling 5G devices by a large margin. Deloitte Global predicts at least 2.5 billion Wi-Fi 6 devices will ship in 2022, roughly versus roughly 1.5 billion 5G devices.

Compared with its predecessors, Wi-Fi 6 delivers a step change in performance. It can transmit data at up to a theoretical maximum of 9.6 Gbps (about three times Wi-Fi 5), while cutting latency significantly. But more importantly, it could lead to a major increase in capacity and support for simultaneous connections, particularly for indoor areas with high user density where it can make use of new licence-exempt spectrum in the 6 GHz band.

Better indoors connectivity for consumers and companies

Although they won’t support extensive outdoor coverage, Wi-Fi 6 networks could bring fast and reliable wireless connectivity to all kinds of indoor venues, workplaces, as well as households, schools and hospitals. In European markets that haven’t yet made sufficient spectrum available to support (private) 5G networks, Wi-Fi 6 could deliver the connectivity required to support the high-levels of automation and data analysis associated with Industry 4.0. However, Wi-Fi networks performance will be highly linked to the penetration of fiber networks that will provide the fixed backhaul necessary to guarantee the higher bandwidth requirements.

In the Netherlands, fiber coverage is expanding steadily. The number of homes passed by fiber networks is set to rise from 4.7 million in 2021 to 7.7 million in 2026 , according to the FTTH Council of Europe. Wi-Fi 6 will help businesses and consumers to take full advantage of the gigabyte speeds enabled by these new fiber networks. In particular, Wi-Fi 6 will make it easier for dozens of devices to share a fiber connection. Today, many people use Wi-Fi to watch television-on-demand or play video games, increasingly in ultra-high definition.

Whereas 5G represents a revolution in cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi 6 is an evolution of Wi-Fi connectivity. For enterprises, that could be a good thing – Wi-Fi is a familiar technology they know how to deploy and manage. Better still, you can deploy a Wi-Fi 6 access point and it will continue to serve your existing devices, as well as any new Wi-Fi 6 compatible kit you buy. Whereas 5G generally requires enterprises to use services provided by an operator or even to license spectrum from government entities for private use, Wi-Fi 6 uses free, unlicensed spectrum.

That makes Wi-Fi 6 relatively easy to adopt. As enterprises and households’ access points reach the end of their natural lives, they will be replaced with Wi-Fi 6 equipment. Most telcos now have tools that can help customers locate Wi-Fi access points in the optimum location to maximise coverage and performance.

Working in tandem with 5G

As Wi-Fi 6 provides high performance indoor coverage, mobile operators can focus their 5G investments on improving outdoor coverage. As and when they get access to the 3.5 GHz band, 5G operators should be able to provide high-speed connectivity across much of the Netherlands’ road and rail networks. When their customers reach their destination and move inside, the operators can offload their traffic on to Wi-Fi 6, freeing up the 5G network for people on the move.

In the long-term, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are likely to work in tandem to cover all of our connectivity needs. Whereas Wi-Fi 6 is low cost and flexible, 5G is likely to be more secure, reliable and potentially more customizable, once telcos have 5G core networks that can offer slices of connectivity. Both technologies can be used in conjunction with edge compute centres to reduce latency and provide local data storage.

Research by Deloitte Global points to a complementary, rather than a competitive, future for these two technologies. Tellingly, the countries reporting the highest levels of Wi-Fi 6 pilots and deployments (Germany, Brazil, United Kingdom, China, and Australia) are also those that reported the highest levels of 5G pilots and deployments.

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