Setting The Record Straight On 5G Cellular: What It Is – And Isn’t

5G, the next generation of wide-area “cellular” wireless technologies, is on the way. And, while the term 5G remains somewhat loose and unofficial (just as was the case with 4G, by the way), 5G is promising much higher throughput, capacity, and support for growing numbers of users, mobile devices, and real-time traffic flows. In fact, 5G represents such an enormous leap over 4G that some are even positing that Wi-Fi itself may become unnecessary, and we’re already seeing unlicensed wide-area services creeping into the spectrum that Wi-Fi depends upon. So, then: will cellular kill Wi-Fi?

While some analysts will indeed reach this conclusion, the answer is a resolute NO. Cellular and Wi-Fi have different missions, and 5G even with its remarkable technologies and support from almost every cellular carrier on the planet won’t be able to displace Wi-Fi even if the carriers in fact wanted to do so – and, interestingly, they don’t. 

This series from Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group will explore (1) what 5G is, and isn’t, (2) the technologies behind 5G and why some believe it will be the only wireless technology we need going forward, and (3) why Wi-Fi not only survives, but in fact prospers in the 5G era. 

You’re undoubtedly hearing more about the upcoming fifth generation (5G) of wide-area wireless (a/k/a/ cellular) technologies now in the advanced stages of development. As it turns out, 5G is arriving right on schedule – major generations (or Gs) appear roughly every 10 years, and are defined by correspondingly-major advances in underlying technologies that yield real benefits for end-users everywhere. 

5G continues that tradition, but in ways that many will find surprising. Some even expect 5G cellular to challenge and perhaps even replace Wi-Fi. In this series, we’ll look at the technologies of 5G and why some have reached this conclusion. And we’ll explore why quite the opposite will in fact be the case: 5G is no threat to Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi will continue to prosper even as 5G becomes the norm in the cellular world.

Context is important

Given the complex technical, marketing, and business context at work here, though, let’s start at the beginning. Cellular itself grew out of the original MPS (Mobile Phone System) that you might have seen in old TV shows from the ‘50s, with big vacuum-tube-based sets that scream cyberpunk today. 1G (which went live in 1983 in the US) was initially car-centric and always analog, but offered cellular hand-off mobility and modem-class data speeds – I myself once got 22Kbps after a lot of work. 

Mobile handsets quickly followed, along with 2G digital cellular in the early ‘90s. The whole point to going digital wasn’t, as many even today assume, improved voice quality or data speeds; the former was often worse and the latter absolutely no better. Rather, the motivator was to improve spectral efficiency to get more simultaneous calls on the air per unit of time and bandwidth – in other words, to improve capacity. As such plays a role in every G, we’ll return to this essential theme later.

3G was also of course digital, but also broadband – now we’re talking hundreds of kilobits per second of data throughput. 4G, currently being deployed and enhanced, extends the data theme (and, more recently, all-IP services) with megabit-class throughput. 4G also converged around a single technology, LTE-Advanced

So one might assume that 5G is all about gigabit-class speeds, and one would be correct – although the objective is most certainly not to provision that level of capability on a per-user basis. Rather, the goal is an increase in overall system capacity, along with improvements in coverage, reliability, round-trip latency (reduced to on the order of 1 ms), and system-wide efficiency. And all this by taking advantage of even-more-advanced technologies to extend the capabilities of 4G and usher in a real shot at a wireless-first … or even wireless-only wide-area service and perhaps even, in some cases, the same for the residence and the enterprise. 

5G not replacing Wi-Fi

Putting my analyst hat on, I don’t think that wireless-only necessarily makes sense – some wire will always be required, if only for backhaul. But you get the idea – 5G wireless is, at least at the edge, wire-class. There’s no surprise here, really – Wi-Fi, after all, has been doing exactly this for years now. 5G actually adopts much of what we’ve learned from Wi-Fi; hence the good number of people who see the potential for the replacement of WLANs with WWANs. The cellular carriers have done a poor job in the enterprise; is 5G their shot at last? Could they sell 5G to organizations as a replacement for Wi-Fi?

It’s those WLAN-class apps that are driving the demand behind 5G, after all. These include requirements for for streaming media at 4K quality, very large numbers of client devices (including those involved in IoT, like embedded health applications, and applications such as driverless cars, real-time augmented reality (think Pokémon Go, but useful), rapid disaster recovery, and many more.

5G ain’t a slam-dunk, however. Appropriate implementations of the required technologies, while potentially prodigious, are immature and still in development. The economics need to be worked out, with the cost of equipment, deployment, and operations also unknown. And, finally, the big one: spectrum. Much wider channel bandwidths will be required in many cases (just as we’ve seen with Wi-Fi), with corresponding costs and essential limitations. 

The unlicensed bands, already under consideration by the unlicensed 4G technologies LAA-LTE and LTE-U, may attract even more attention from the 5G community (note, though, that there is no necessary relationship between 5G and the 5GHz bands, a common misconception; 5G can operate as a common technology on a wide variety of frequencies including the millimeter-wave bands above 60 GHz.), and the questionable-at-best auction process now used almost globally to allocate licensed spectrum will continue to add enormous costs.

Even with all this, the sheer market demand for enhanced broadband service will, we believe, result in production rollouts of 5G no later than 2023. 

But does 5G really have the chops to replace Wi-Fi and become the one ring, I mean service, to rule them all? Next time we’ll look at the technologies of 5G in more detail, and you might be tempted to agree. But have no fear – Part 3 of this three-part series on 5G will definitively outline why Wi-Fi has a long and happy life ahead. In the meantime, we will break down the individual technologies in part 2. Stay tuned.

All Posts In This Series:

1) Setting The Record Straight On 5G Cellular: What It Is – And Isn’t

2) Learning About 5G Cellular: The Technologies

3) 5G Cellular: Why Wi-Fi Not Just Survives, but Prospers

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Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile IT. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference and event speaker, and author. He currently writes columns for Boundless, Connected Futures, CIO.com, and various sites at TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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