On June 20th, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) celebrates the World Wi-Fi Day, a date created in 2016 to honour the achievements in connectivity made possible by the technology.
With mobile connectivity rapidly evolving – 5G and its high bandwidth are being rolled out, and frequently there is new research on 6G published – one question always arises: will cellular networks replace Wi-Fi in the future?
To answer this question, you might think about it in terms of tea and coffee. Yes, you’ve read that right. “If I sell tea, I want everyone to drink tea. If I sell coffee, I want everyone to drink coffee. The reality is, as consumers, we need both tea and coffee. When it comes to Wi-Fi and 5G, I see it the same way,” said Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of WBA.
The market has started to reflect this. According to a survey conducted in July 2020 by WBA with 96 providers from the wireless industry, by the end of 2023 converged cellular and Wi-Fi networks will account for most private, city, and Industrial IoT deployments.
This dual-network approach is being already employed. “At locations like airports, where there is a high footfall, companies are deploying Wi-Fi and indoor cellular coverage. They are able to do some load balancing between the number of devices on the cellular and the Wi-Fi because they have been partnered with the mobile operators working in the region. It’s a completely automatic experience for the end customer,” Rodrigues explained.
Another positive Wi-Fi/cellular step has taken place in South Korea, where providers employ a technology called Multipath TCP which enables simultaneous use of cellular and Wi-Fi networks together to transmit data. “I can go faster because I’m using both networks to connect. The bandwidth that my device gets is the sum of the Wi-Fi plus the cellular bandwidth,” Rodrigues said.
The choice depends on the situation and the needs of people browsing the internet, according to Rodrigues. It can make sense to deploy Wi-Fi in a hotel because it helps with indoor coverage, or because it’s cheaper and easier to set up indoors than a cellular network. Or due to the device your audience uses – laptop, smartphone, tablet, or TV.
On the other hand, LTE and 5G are more suited for moments that demand fast, long-range mobility – when you are driving your car, or texting a friend while on the street, listening to music on the go.
In Rodrigues’ opinion, providers should embrace the possibilities the cellular-Wi-Fi tandem offer. “They should look to the Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities as a compliment. Of course, a mobile carrier needs to deploy a cellular network across the entire country where it is operating. But at the same time, this operator should be very opportunistic and look for different locations, especially indoors, where it can take advantage of the Wi-Fi.”
No More Competition Between Cellular and Wi-Fi. Right…?
Not so fast. Even though there is a trend towards convergence between networks, or at least combined use of them, the market will see some clash of interests.
“Yes, there is competition,” Rodrigues acknowledged. “There are specific locations and scenarios where maybe you will have both technologies, or you can choose one or the other. Those scenarios are going to exist, but overall, they are marginal scenarios.”
Aside from the Wi-Fi and cellular equipment manufacturers’ desire to sell their products, another aspect of the competition is that, over time, both technologies have become more similar when it comes to their capabilities.
The graph below, extracted from WBA’s 2021 Annual Industrial Report, shows how each technology performs according to eight KPIs. Even though there are differences, it is easy to see where they overlap.
So, is That a Bad Thing?
According to Rodrigues, it is not. On the contrary, “Mobile operators will have more options to integrate both Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
“I foresee that in the future, ten years from now, we will have connectivity based on QoS [Quality of Service] in such a way that we can be in the same room, but because you are doing gaming and I’m doing messaging, we will have completely different capacities and bandwidth just based on our needs and the AI-type of integration of the network,” Rodrigues forecast.