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Can 5G Replace WiFi?

Doug Dawson

Verizon recently posted a webcast with investors where Ronan Dunne, EVP and CEO of the Verizon Consumer Group said that he believed that 5G hotspots using millimeter wave spectrum would eventually displace WiFi in homes.

He cites major benefits of 5G over WiFi. He believes that a 5G network will be more reliable and more secure. He thinks that people will value the safety that comes from having traffic inside their home being encrypted as it rides Verizon's 5G network compared to the more public nature of WiFi where every neighbor can see a home's WiFi network.

He also cites the convenience of being able to transfer 5G traffic between networks. He paints a picture where a customer making a call or watching a video using a home 5G hotspot will be able to walk out the door and seamlessly continue the session outside on their cellphone. That's pretty slick stuff should that ever come to pass.

The picture he's painting for Verizon investors is a future where homes buy a Verizon 5G subscription to use in place of WiFi. This is part of Verizon's ongoing effort to find a business case for 5G. His vision of the future is possible, but there are many hurdles for Verizon to overcome to achieve that vision.

It's going to get harder to compete with WiFi since the technology is getting a lot better with two major upgrades. First, the industry has introduced WiFi 6, which brings higher quality performance, lower latency, and faster data rates. WiFi 6 will use techniques like improved beamforming to greatly reduce interference between WiFi uses within the home.

Even more importantly, WiFi will be incorporating the new 6 GHz spectrum band that will increase bandwidth capabilities by adding seven 160 MHz bands and fourteen 80 MHz bands. It will be much easier to put home devices on separate channels when these new channels are added to the existing channels available on 2.4 and 5 GHz. This means that 5G will be competing against a much-improved WiFi compared to the technology we all use today.

Another big hurdle for Verizon to overcome is that WiFi is ubiquitous today. WiFi is built into a huge number of devices, and a homeowner might already own a dozen or more devices capable of using WiFi. Verizon will have to convince homeowners somehow that 5G is so superior that it's worth replacing the panoply of WiFi devices.

Another hurdle is that there are going to be WiFi vendors painting almost the same picture as Verizon. The makers of WiFi routers are already envisioning future devices that will introduce millimeter-wave spectrum, including 5G into the home. There are vendors already working on devices that will provide both WiFi 6 and 5G using millimeter-wave connections simultaneously, using the publicly available 60 GHz V band. These solutions envision offering everything that Verizon can do, except the ability to roam seamlessly in and out of a home — and it will be done by selling a box instead of a new monthly subscription.

Another interesting hurdle to switching home networks to 5G is that there might be separate 5G solutions for each cellular carrier that uses different bands of spectrum. It's relatively easy for device makers today to build a cellphone or other device that can use different cellular carriers because the carriers all use similar spectrum. But as each cellular company picks a different mix of frequencies moving forward, there is likely going to be cellphones and other devices that are specific to one carrier. It's impossible to build a cellphone with today's battery technology that can receive a huge range of spectrums — the multiple antenna systems would drain a cellphone dry in no time.

The largest hurdle of all is that WiFi is free to use after buying a WiFi router or meshed WiFi devices for the home. There is no monthly subscription fee to use the wireless WiFi connections within the home. Verizon clearly foresees a world where every home has a new monthly subscription to use its in-home 5G network.

Mr. Dunne makes one good point. It's becoming increasingly clear that public WiFi networks are susceptible to hacking. A 5G network controlled by a carrier should be a lot safer than a WiFi hotspot managed by a coffee shop. The big question is if this enough incentive for people to buy 5G-capable devices or for coffee shops to switch to 5G networks. Even should coffee shops go with a 5G solution, will homes follow suit?

Mr. Dunne's vision has an underlying assumption that people will value data security enough to be willing to pay more for it. He envisions people choosing a managed network when they have a choice. He could be right, and perhaps there will be enough data breaches in the coming years with WiFi that the paradigm will change from WiFi to 5G. But it's going to be incredibly hard to dislodge WiFi, particularly when it's evolving and improving along with 5G.

Even if Mr. Dunne is right, this shift is not coming soon, probably not within this decade. For now, WiFi has won the device war, and any shift to 5G would drag out over many years. It's going to be incredibly difficult for the cellular carriers to convince everybody to switch to 5G.

I sympathize with Mr. Dunne's dilemma. Investors want to understand where the revenues will come from to fund the expensive upgrades to 5G. Verizon and the other cellular carriers have tossed out many ideas, but so far, none of them have stuck to the wall. Investors are getting rightfully nervous since there doesn't appear to be any significant 5G revenues coming in the next few years. The carriers keep painting pictures of an amazing 5G future as a way to not have to talk about the lack of 5G revenues today.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting
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About those "seamless" transitions Karl Auerbach  –  Feb 19, 2020 6:03 PM PDT

There is scant discussion of fact that as we move to higher frequency/shorter wavelength bands we will see significant issues concerning the penetration and reflection characteristics of the radio link between the mobile device and the cell to which it is attached.

Simply walking from one room to another could, in a millimeter wave scenario, whether 5G or WIFI trigger a big change in the end-to-end character of the data flow.  This will almost certainly worse as one moves between an inside-home realm to outside.  The characteristics of the backhaul from the cell to the wireless carrier or internet could be quite different, and that sudden change of delay, jitter, packet loss, possible re-ordering, and even duplication are the kinds of things that drive many protocol implementations to the verge of failure (or past that verge.)

We all experienced the quality erosion that occurred as we moved away from Ma Bell wired phones to cellular voice.  5G could well be another turn of that crank - it is not unlikely that 5G signals will break up and perhaps transition to a new cell (and suffer the side effects of that transition) as the result of simple causes that we do not even consider today: Walking through a doorway, going outside, an airplane flying overhead, turning around, etc.

As for Verizon, I find it ironic that, even though my house is a fairly short line-of-sight distance to a cell tower the signal in our neighborhood is so week that most of us have had to install "femto cells" in our homes that are backhauled to Verizon on Comcast's wired network.

Another issue is that of failure.  Those of us in California learned last fall that Verizon and other wireless providers (and wired ones too - I'm looking at you Comcast) do not provide enough backup power to their cell towers (and often to their switching centers) to survive the kinds of multi-hour, multi-day power outages that are in our future.

Are the wireless providers ready to bear the burden of assuring that all of the small cells, including their backhauls, have the power backup to survive our new era of power shutoffs?

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