Industry Voices—Lowenstein: With all the attention to 5G, don’t ignore Wi-Fi

Mark Lowenstein

In the midst of near-daily headlines about 5G, here’s something that you probably haven’t thought too much about: Wi-Fi. There’s actually a lot happening, much of it in a way that will be integral to the fixed and mobile broadband experience going forward.

To start, here’s a quick review of the notable developments in Wi-Fi over the past few years. First was the spread of voice over Wi-Fi, where a large number of indoor and internationally originated cellular calls are taking place over Wi-Fi—improving the indoor coverage experience and allowing for some capacity offloading. Second, the Federal Communications Commission has been fairly serious about adding capacity for Wi-Fi—initially some channels in the 5 GHz band, and now planning to add more capacity in the 6 GHz band. Third, even though Wi-Fi-centric mobile offerings never really took off, Wi-Fi has become an important component part of MVNO offerings, mainly from Google (Project Fi) and the cable companies (Comcast, Charter), since the economics of purchasing data wholesale from host cellular companies remain unappealing. And, fourth, we’ve seen home mesh networks become much more widespread, mainly with the objective of improving in-building coverage and speed.

I think this last development has been a bit under-recognized, as it gets consumers more comfortable with fiddling around with wireless equipment in the home, potentially laying the groundwork for 5G fixed wireless services and other "connected devices."

The Wi-Fi road map for the next couple of years looks even more compelling. Here are the main expected developments:

Wi-Fi 6. Leading the charge is the rollout of 802.11ax, newly branded as Wi-Fi 6 (so 802.11ac is Wi-Fi 5, etc.). What’s most interesting is that the main improvements of Wi-Fi 6—higher speed, lower latency, greater capacity, and more advanced traffic management—match the first few bullet points of any 5G presentation you’ve seen in recent years. Even closer to cellular-land is that Wi-Fi 6 is based on orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) (the same architecture as 5G), which makes Wi-Fi less prone to interference, improves spectral efficiency, and boosts performance at the cell edge.

Another important feature is deterministic scheduling, which means that instead of the current "listen before talk" architecture, Wi-Fi will share the same MAC layer as cellular. This means that devices should more elegantly switch between cellular and Wi-Fi, addressing a frustration I call "Wi-Fi Purgatory."

Even though early Wi-Fi 6 commercial equipment and routers have been announced by some of the leading players (Commscope/Ruckus, Cisco, Asus), the Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification process won’t start until the fourth quarter of 2019, which means Wi-Fi 6 gear won’t be broadly available before mid-2020.

WiGig and HaLow. WiGig will support deployments in the 60 GHz band. It’s geared toward hyper-dense environments, and for in-building use in situations requiring very high speed over small distances. It could also be used for backhaul.

HaLow (the name given to IEEE 802.11ah) operates in the 900 MHz band and is geared toward IoT devices, requiring longer range, lower bandwidth, and lower power. It will associate with Wi-Fi networks in the 2.4/5 GHz bands if the equipment supports it.

New Spectrum. A total of 600 MHz is available for Wi-Fi, including the additional 5 GHz bands that were opened up in 2014. The FCC has proposed an additional 1200 MHz in the 6 GHz band, which will likely be available circa 2021. 

PassPoint is an effort to provide more seamless and safe connectivity for subscribers by eliminating constant reauthentication of credentials when they visit other service provider networks. The concept has been kicking around since 2012, but has renewed momentum, with leading service providers such as AT&T, Boingo, Charter, and T-Mobile showing greater commitment.

What does this mean? 

Each of these developments has its own benefits/areas of impact, but I’d like to call out three themes that speak broadly to the wireless world. First, the new architecture and features of Wi-Fi 6 seem very much aligned with the LTE and 5G road map. The experience of moving between cellular and Wi-Fi should become more seamless. Wi-Fi will increasingly be used for off-loading (note, for example, the recent AT&T-Boingo deal), and even for backhaul, in the case of WiGig.

Second, Wi-Fi will become a bigger part of conversations about next generation wireless strategy at venues and in the enterprise that include private LTE, Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS), and, eventually, 5G solutions. For example, key enterprise/service provider focused Wi-Fi equipment suppliers such as Ruckus (now part of CommScope) and Cisco are incorporating CBRS into their Wi-Fi solutions, bridging the licensed and unlicensed worlds. Boingo, long thought of as a Wi-Fi service provider in venues such as airports, is today much more of an integrator of neutral host wireless solutions.

Third, the lines between fixed and mobile broadband will continue to blur. In essence, licensed millimeter wave (mmWave) is an outside-in "super-hotspot," in a way that Wi-Fi 6 plus new 6 GHz spectrum provides much the same capability, from the inside out. The future state of a venue or an enterprise will utilize a soup of licensed/unlicensed (cellular+LAA+Wi-Fi), services, dedicated/shared/unlicensed (cellular+CBRS+Wi-Fi) spectrum, and public (cellular)/private (private LTE, 5G/Wi-Fi) solutions. I think this also changes the game for the indoor market, where an integrator/neutral host model could become more prevalent. Wi-Fi 6 will also enable Wi-Fi to become a greater part of service providers’ "small cell" strategy in the future.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.