Electronic Design magazine's newsletters treat us to an interview with Cees Links of the Netherlands, one of the original inventors of WiFi. With the title, "Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G: Why Trying to Pick a Winner is Missing the Point", it's really not about which makes the better network so much as talking about making the networked radio experience better all the way around.
Perhaps you've missed the buzz about WiFi 6 coming, so the Verge has a good introductory article on some of what's different. Like 5G, it will be "real soon now", probably by the end of this year, because the specification doesn't appear to be released yet.
This is where I find Cees Links' perspective good to read:
Of course, some of the messaging around 5G is just marketing hype, showcasing the favorable points and ignoring the less favorable ones. The claim is that 5G with 4 Gb/s will be faster than Wi-Fi (.11ac) with 1.3 Gb/s. The immediate counter argument is that Wi-Fi (.11ax) with 9.6 Gb/s will be faster than 5G.To begin with, let's get something out of the way. 5G isn't going to get all new spectrum and while they do go into chunks of spectrum previously unused by phone data links, 5G also reuses other frequencies the older generations use. This chart from Keysight Technologies, a long time test equipment maker, is color coded:
But will these speeds be achieved in real life? We’ve seen this before, these glossy promises of high-speed access being wiped away by the hard truth of “but I still cannot get a decent connection in the basement,” or something similar, because—and here’s the real headline—how good will 9.6 Gb/s Wi-Fi be in the basement, if the connection to the home is 300 Mb/s, or even less? It seems like we’re working on the wrong issues, doesn’t it?
The purple numbers are 3GPP or LTE frequencies repurposed for 5G and the teal numbers are new 5G frequencies. The important points are the spectrum reuse, that many of the 5G frequencies are currently in use, and to point out that those numbers on far right go as high as 40 GHz. These frequencies don't penetrate either the atmosphere, walls, or leaves on trees, and other bits of the environment very well. Yes, running more power can help, but they can't run unlimited power due to safety regulations and the extra power just doesn't buy much.
Better coverage inside the home is one of the key characteristics of the new generation of Wi-Fi, now called Wi-Fi 6 (based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard). The distributed concept behind this new version of the Wi-Fi standard (also called Wi-Fi mesh) helps to distribute internet to every room in the home, with the main router at the front door, and small satellite routers (also known as repeaters) on every floor and in every room. This enables internet service providers to sell and support solid internet connectivity everywhere in the home—all good news!As a consumer, I think I'm pretty typical in that I don't care what radio protocol I'm using, WiFi 6 or 5G; I just want it to work right. Anywhere - whether that's here at my desk or if I need to communicate from the side of a road at some point. The drawback to all this is that I need to go buy new hardware and I think I'm a pretty typical consumer in not wanting to do that. There are no 5G cellphones yet (and my bet is that it will be years before 5G gets here to the small town). Likewise, there are no WiFi 6 routers yet - the 802.11ax specification is expected to be implemented by the end of the year. It seems to me WiFi 6 will be here before 5G, but that would require I buy a router, then repeaters and then things that go on the other end of the WiFi link.
Cees Links raises some interesting points about the cellphone industry coming from a background of the heavily regulated telephone industry, selling frequency access while the WiFi industry comes from a background of using unlicensed frequencies. When the cellphone providers think of providing data services like 5G, it's like bringing the phone twisted pair to your house: what you do in the house is up to you. Likewise, the WiFi provider thinks of selling you a router and then you make everything work. Nobody has done a good job of integrating the router and the cellphone data stream. That's probably what consumers want more than disjointed pieces of hardware and data services that just don't seem to work right.